RoadSigns I found Scott Adams' (yes, that Scott Adams) blog post today about The Power of Choice interesting. Particularly at the end where he says this:

The next time your mate or co-worker is butting heads with you over a decision, recast the situation as their choice.

For example, let’s say you favor Option A, and someone else wants Option B for reasons that seem to you irrational. You are at an impasse. Change the question to this:

“Okay, do you want Option A with this risk, or do you want Option B with this other risk? It’s your call.”

When you put things in the form of a choice, sometimes it gives people the only thing they wanted in the first place.

I’ve been using this technique in software development for years with great success but it takes some care. The thing is that "with this risk" and "with this other risk" buries some real temptation to undermine the actual choice. An example of undermining the choice:

  • Would you like to use Linux which is free and has broad support and experts available and eager to help where you can have access to the actual developers to fix any trouble we run into?

or

  • Would you like to send hundreds of dollars per seat to a corporation that lies and cheats and whose software is insecure, buggy, and closed?

This isn’t a choice, this is merely a statement of your own prejudice. It is a dishonest representation of the alternatives. Presenting a choice like this is a sure-fire way to alienate opposition and polarize discussion. Worse, it undermines trust.

True Choice

Here’s a key I’ve found in offering a client, customer, or business manager a choice: be prepared and honestly reconciled to following either path. This includes an honest and complete evaluation of the options. This preparation manifests as sincerity and is easily sensed by those you work with. The more ego you have invested in one of the options, the harder this becomes. I find it useful to practice not tying my ego up in technical topics and decisions. Non-technical people find this refreshing. Sadly.

The key to offering sincere choice is that it invokes an effect I described earlier this year in Winning Arguments—putting everyone on the same side.

Anything is Possible

One technique I’ve found useful in exploring software development options is to preempt speculation. When a business person comes to me and starts off with "Can we..." I’ll snap off a quick "we can do anything." This statement has the benefit of being absolutely true with the added bonus of turning the discussion to resources, requirements, and trade-offs. There’s no downside there.

"Can we implement a shopping cart like Amazon.com’s so that our customers can get recommendations and save shopping-carts?"

"Absolutely. We can do anything."

Unless they’ve asked me broad questions like this before, this response is a stumper. They are expecting hemming and hawing and evasions. They are expecting opposition. This statement turns their expected opposition on its head. It gets them thinking automatically about why we can’t do this amazing thing.

And here’s a blunt truth: nine times in ten they haven’t really considered their question at all. Consciously or not, they’re trying to get you to do their work for them. Preempt that by giving them as much as they are giving you—an answer requiring as much thought as they put into their question.

Now, you can make this sincere (and less antagonistic) by following up. If they don’t follow up on their own, I’ll add "Let’s explore what it would take." Notice the "Let’s". i.e. we’re working together to explore our resources, requirements, and options.

It doesn’t take long for people I’ve done this to before to start thinking about resources and requirements before they approach me. The sooner you can get people thinking in terms of trade-offs in software development discussions, the sooner you can get to the meat of those discussions.

And really, every software development discussion is all about trade-offs. That’s because we really can do anything with software—if it can be conceived, it can be done.

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