Consider abandoning “Healthy Tension”

The most challenging problems take teams to solve — the manhattan project or choosing to go the moon, if you needed examples. So how do we work together?

In most software companies I’ve worked at (as well as heard in many talks) leaders will discuss the “Healthy Tension” they create between Product-Design-Development. This often arrises from different goals, let’s presume for example that Product’s goal is for overall value and business viability, Design’s goal is usability, and Development’s goal is technical feasibility.

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Tension arises because each area has their own goal. Having your own goal as a subset of the team means you will want to get the most for that goal, and not the team.

To be fair, compared to unhealthy tension, “Healthy Tension” is definitely an improvement. It usually means people are nice to each, even if they are still generally disappointed in the decisions.

Further, consider for a moment that tension only exists when we want things to be different than how they are. Why would anyone want to create these environments that lack alignment with reality? It ends up being a lot of time spent on communication and resolution of reality. Moreover, people feel like they are constantly losing as reality falls short of their goals or aspiration.

This is not the way to high-performance. It is possible to save all the effort spent on this tension. This wasted energy could instead be spent pulling together instead of against each other.

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Pulling together

Instead create collaborative environments. Create safe spaces with mutual understanding and respect. Work together. Unite under a single goal of customer value. This is what cross-functional empowered teams do.

To accomplish great things we need to do it with others. And, to be a successful team, each member has to sacrifice. Sacrifice is a scary word, we don’t use it often in software development, but in order to aptly wield the added power and responsibility of being on a team, we have to sacrifice a bit of our identity. Nobody has to completely give up their identity for their area; however, they do have to make room for a larger identity to exist as a member of the team working toward delivering customer value.

It may seem obvious or maybe even non-consequential. Yet, it’s amazing how different “Healthy Tension” and “Collaboration” look and feel. Conversations change, decisions are better and faster, and people are happier and share more knowledge.

The best indicator I have is that “Healthy Tension” results in what feels like constant compromise and negotiation. “Collaboration” on the other hand results in safer spaces and better decision making — so, you still compromise and negotiate, but you never feel like you’re losing something.

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