The next time you're struggling to reach agreement at work, pause and consider whether the trade-offs are clear. If they're assumed and unspoken, the conversation lacks a shared foundation.
Imagine that one person advocates for hiring experienced people with signicant accomplishments. They argue they'll accomplish more, faster; raise the level of the team; and require less day-to-day guidance.
Sounds great, but what are the trade-offs? Possibilities include higher salaries, a longer hiring process, and fewer growth opportunities for existing team members.
Another person makes the case for hiring people with limited experience and high potential. They will be easier to find, less expensive, and driven to grow.
Both approaches have merit, but they can't be evaluated only on their presumed benefits. Every decision has a cost.
There may still be disagreement after the trade-offs are on the table, but the conversation is now focused on a more substantive topic—the underlying priorities. One person may place the highest value on hiring quickly and often, another on small teams with fewer managers.
Turning to a product 1 (1 Engineering examples might include whether to use feature flags, requiring code review on each pull request, and when to use third-party libraries.) example, imagine a team has a new feature that's nearing completion, but it's unsure about how to release it. Some want to do a round of user testing, then a limited beta. Others want to skip both steps and get it into users' hands quickly.
After discussing the trade-offs of both approaches, it becomes clear that one group prioritizes confidence and quality. They believe that the additional checkpoints will validate and improve the solution, increasing the likelihood that the launch will be smooth and successful.
The other group prioritizes speed and iteration, believing that the best way to learn and improve is to ship early and often.
The conversation has moved from how to ship one feature to what are the goals for feature releases. Once the team is aligned on that, future decisions will be easier.
Clarity about trade-offs also keeps people aligned when the pain points or costs are later encountered. Imagine the team decided to do a round of user testing and a limited beta before releasing the feature. If trade-offs were vague and there wasn't alignment on the underlying priorities, there will soon be grumbling that it isn't live yet and frustration about slow progress.
As the next feature nears release, the same debate starts again, now complicated by disagreement over the last experience. When everyone understands the trade-offs, there are fewer surprises and less second-guessing.
People are usually aware of a decision's trade-offs, they just aren't discussed openly. Sometimes they're left out to make the case seem stronger. Other times people are concerned about being seen as negative or assume they're obvious and don't need be discussed. The reality is the people almost always have different take. Everyone benefits when assumptions are spelled out.
Being open about trade-offs assures that decisions aren't made with incomplete context. It pushes the conversation to the underlying priorities that are driving each person's preferences, which increases alignment. And it strengthens resolve when trade-offs surface later.
The next time you're making a decision, ask:
- What are the unspoken trade-offs of this decision?
- What are we not doing in order to do this?
- What are we optimizing for?
- What priority is driving this decision?