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The Questionnaire Alignment Technique to solve conflicting positions

Introduction
The Questionnaire Alignment Technique to solve conflicting positions

It's usual to have discussions between colleagues on the decisions we need to take. Most of the time, there is a healthy debate, which concludes in an agreement. There are other times when the discussion is full of misunderstandings, making it very difficult to align the different parties.

I've developed a technique useful for those moments when there are conflicting positions, and not everyone seems to agree even on the words we are using. I call it The Questionnaire Alignment Technique. I'm not aware of others using it, so if you knew about it already, please share your thoughts with me!

Let me tell you one of those moments where this technique was useful to my team.


We have been developing a database of unique addresses to help our clients input them so we can recognize the warehouse quickly. With that information, we can decide which truck to send and the possible waiting times to avoid delays on further shipments. This project was divided into two teams, one implemented the core piece, and the other did the frontend of our products.

When they were testing the front end's implementation, they missed addresses, or they found wrong ones. The core team disagreed strongly about that conclusion. At that moment, it was clear we didn't do a good job on the project definition. My impression is that they weren't far off; we just needed some alignment and tweaks. So, I organized a session to review the problems.

Suddenly, two people started disagreeing on what "wrong address" meant, which addresses we should store, or what could be automated. To flip the momentum, I decided to apply the Questionnaire Alignment Technique.


The Questionnaire Alignment Technique is straightforward to apply. You write a list of questions with the misalignments you are having, and you fill them with the different potential answers. Together, you go through every question choosing an answer or even creating a new one that reflects the solution you want to go after. You must reflect every possible answer, even if it doesn't make sense. That way, all options were on the table. That will help everyone commit to the chosen answer by the team.

Suppose you disagree on general concepts or even the meaning of words. In that case, it can be beneficial that you take a break from the discussion and quickly write down the principles of the project (e.g., we will accept any address given to us by our clients, no matter the source) and the definition of some words (e.g., incorrect address: an address which is not valid for the driver).

Anyone can propose this technique to the team. If the discussion can be intense, it would be great if a neutral or more senior person moderates it. It will help alleviate any tension or blockers to avoid people rejecting the exercise. The technique facilitates that all voices are heard, but having a neutral person sometimes helps when the discussion has an emotional angle.

Let's look back at the example I was sharing.


As you can see below, we wrote down the misalignments we were having as questions and answers. We discussed over them, we created new potential answers, and we made sure everyone agreed explicitly on each chosen answer. We ended up having ten questions with ten approved answers and exact steps and owners to unblock the project. The whole meeting took us less than one hour, which has very efficient, taking into account that it started with two conflicting positions.

Real example of an Alignment Questionnaire

What I like about this technique is that it's very effective and time-efficient. The main goal in these cases is to reach an agreement and unblock the project. This technique also facilitates the team strengthening its relationship, taking a joint decision instead of someone from the outside deciding for them. And they do it in a short amount of time, getting the voice of everyone without endless discussions.

This technique tries to reach a consensus with more voices to have a better decision. However, it's essential to clarify who is the decision-maker in case of disagreement. The team needs to make a decision, with or without 100% alignment. If there isn't, someone will need to disagree and commit. One of the objectives of the technique is that the person will hopefully feel heard.

If you apply it with your team, you will notice the improvement on their behavior. Before the meeting, some people are frustrated or angry. After the meeting, they will be glad because their voice was heard, and together, they made a better decision to unblock the project.

Real 'high fives' I received for moderating the meeting

In my example, the questionnaire was written during the meeting. You can also do async or before an alignment meeting. For example, if you detect misalignment, start a questionnaire and ask everyone to complete questions and answers; and then ask them to answer it asynchronously using comments. You will begin the alignment meeting with a better knowledge of where the differences lay and where you should focus your time.

Don't underestimate the importance of agreeing first on the definition of some words. We often seem to agree until it's clear that we don't because we don't agree on what a word means for each of us.

Thanks Ana Asuero for the feedback!

Javier Escribano
Author

Javier Escribano

I'm co-founder and CPO at Ontruck, currently leading the Product, Engineering and Data departments. Previously, I co-founded Touristeye which was acquired by Lonely Planet.

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