Consensus vs. Compromise

I purchased Larry L. Constantine's book, The Peopleware Papers: Notes on the Human Side of Software recently. This book is a collection of 60 or so essays that were previously published several years ago. The essays focus on the people aspects of software development and so are as applicable today as they were when originally published.

One essay in particular struck a chord. In it, Larry described an important distinction between consensus and compromise. To Larry, compromise means that neither side is getting what they truly want and, in the case of software, can result in a mediocre product. Consensus, on the other hand, has the potential to result in a product that is superior than what either of the opposing original ideas proposed.

The example given by Constantine takes place during a user interface meeting. One person insists that the menu buttons be located along the top while another person insists that the buttons be located along the left. A purely objective compromise would result in the buttons being placed diagonally down the screen. This is of course an absurd solution. On the other hand, working towards consensus might yield the result of having the placement of the buttons configurable by the user. A win for both sides and a superior product that now has the basis for user customization.

Unfortunately, in the corporate world, someone who doesn't compromise is also often considered to not be much of a team player. So the real trick is working towards consensus rather than compromise, while at the same time not running up against someone's notion of team work. It means going in to a discussion ready to truly understand an opponent's point of view. Once that is accomplished, the next step is to look for a solution that addresses both sides of an issue. It's obvious to see that a solution that suits both parties is superior to any other possible outcome.

And as with all such ideas, there is no one-size fits all formula for achieving consensus. Luckily, just acknowledging that consensus is better than compromise is a huge step forward and going in to meetings with this mindset can significantly increase your chance of success.

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