When I talk about how the Proper Orange team works together, it’s easy to assume that we quickly reach consensus. After all, we like working together, we've spent a lot of time working together on a wide variety of projects, and we often meet up outside the office to hang out over a couple of drinks, dinner, or some live music.
But the greatest value in our collaborative work process often comes from strong disagreements.
“Politeness is the poison of collaboration.” -Edwin Land
Let’s take the example of planning a group trip to Paris. Everyone wants to get there, but in different ways. Everyone has good reasons for why their approach has value: The nonstop, red-eye flight is shortest; the multi-layover combination of flights is cheapest; the ocean cruise eliminates jet lag and comfortably facilitates working as a group throughout the journey. Eventually the group will need to choose one path, but a diversity of perspectives ensures that we’ll consider all of the important variables when reaching a decision.
Similarly, our work collaborations aren’t all sunshine and rainbows. Financial constraints, trade-offs in using different architectural approaches, known and unknown market risks, threats from IP thieves or copycats, supply chain constraints, and industry regulations must all be considered in strategic planning. Contingency plans for worst-case scenarios must be made.
The work experiences of my team members informs their perspectives, priorities and concerns. And because all of our experiences are unique, our perspectives, priorities, and concerns often don't match up--at least not at the beginning of a project. But addressing the concerns of team members often serves as a priceless stress-test for the staying power of a particular business model, product line, or long-range general strategy.
“Other people and other people's ideas are often better than your own. Find a group of people who challenge and inspire you, spend a lot of time with them, and it will change your life.” -Amy Poehler
Often these conversations even encourage innovation. Newly adaptable software frameworks are developed to handle shifting regulations or technical standards. Wildly original marketing strategies emerge from budget constraints. Multiple verticals or product lines spawn from disagreements about defining a single product. Disruption of an entire industry results from the struggle to solve operational logistics. Listening to concerns that may initially seem unrelated to other parts of the business can ultimately lead to cohesive strategies for improving conditions and solving problems across multiple parts of the business simultaneously.
Cultivating disagreements means that some degree of arguing is inevitable. When collaborators are passionate about a concept, and have extensive knowledge to back up our respective approaches, arguments can get loud. To an outsider, they might even look like fighting. But the key is that we know how to disagree without becoming disagreeable. We argue our perspectives until someone can convince the rest of the team--usually with data--that their approach would be most effective, or we take a vote and go with the majority.
Here comes the important part: When the argument is over, it's over. Nobody feels personally attacked, and nobody holds grudges or resentments. We simply move forward, trusting the group's decision about the best way to proceed.
“We realized that no one of us could be as good as all of us playing unselfishly.” -Bill Bradley
The reason why we're able to let go, to not take any disagreements personally, is quite simple. We want to get stuff done. Throughout my work life, I've sought collaborations with deeply knowledgeable professionals who care more about producing good work than about merely demonstrating their knowledge. I reject hierarchy, status, or any sense of "winners and losers" in favor of actual teamwork: We think about a problem, present our respective best strategies to solve it, collectively choose a path forward, and get to work making it happen.