The Lost Art of Disagreement

How collaborations, and friendships, can benefit from a little courage

In May I published a book by my friend and colleague, Tobias Mayer called The People’s Scrum. As business books go, it is unique in that Tobias holds forth with a vehemence of conviction that is usually reserved for religion or politics. The customer reviews on Amazon that have been pouring in indicate that a readership exists that is hungry for passionate, polarized—and polarizing—thought, especially when it comes to parsing the world of work (that bland, fluorescent-lit limbo where too many of us spend our days acting out tableaux from Office Space or Death of a Salesman).

Tobias and I first met as colleagues in the world of software development, he as a scrum trainer and me as creative director at a scrum training company and publisher of a line of scrum books. We bonded, however, over our shared interest in literature. Our first collaboration was a literary anthology, 113 Crickets, which he edited and I designed and published.

Tobias has never held an opinion lightly. His orientation seems to be: If something is worth believing, it is worth believing passionately and absolutely. Early on in our collaboration, I read this as stubbornness, but didn’t take long to learn I was mistaken, that Tobias’ passionate stance came from love of the work, and that the work always came first. Whenever I presented a persuasive argument he would change his position with ease, and I quickly learned to trust that as long as I was expressing myself authentically, he was ready and eager to engage, and to shift his point of view. I have no doubt he felt the same way about me.

We butted heads over cover design, layout, editorial style, and marketing strategies. Feelings were occasionally hurt when toes felt stepped on (almost always by email, no surprise there) but we were always quick to speak to the emotions, and I do not think an unkind or unfair word was ever spoken.

At times, I failed this process (far more than Tobias ever did). I was so inured to the art of compromise in business that I sometimes capitulated too soon on things like cover imagery. I knew what made a cover that would work to our advantage, but I didn’t push hard enough to get something we could both love onto the anthology, a decision that I later regretted.

Don’t believe anyone who tells you there is an “art of compromise.” Compromise is about laying down one’s convictions, putting peace above the work itself and failing to push for a better path (and there is always a better path). There are times, to be sure, when one should trust a colleague’s depth of experience and judgment, but that is a different animal—a leap of faith, not a compromise.

My own mistakes in this regard taught me to be a better collaborator, so by the time Tobias and I agreed to work together on a book that mattered a great deal to both of us, The People’s Scrum, we had a strong, heat-forged working relationship.

Because of this, our process on the book was if anything even more contentious—every aspect of the publishing process on The People’s Scrum was subject to a stress test. We changed the title of the book many times. Originally he had wanted to call it The Agile Edge (me: “Sounds like a brand of safety razor.”). We compromised on Agile On The Edge as a working title, but neither of us liked the feeling of compromise, so we kept debating. Agile Heart (Tobias: “The book is ultimately about having courage at work, and that is about heart.” Me: “But the average reader is going to think heart means something is soft or sentimental, and this book is anything but that!”). Grassroots Agile (Tobias: “It is about the people doing the work owning the process.” Me: “Grassroots is too tired a word, though, and makes it sound like a how-to book for staging a sit-in.”).

Tobias kept pushing for a title that expressed his conviction, while I kept pushing for a title that would grab a potential reader—we each valued both of these goals, so the fact that each important perspective had an advocate on the team was brilliant. Eventually we arrived at the title that best captured the spirit of the book in fresh and unexpected language, and it was not a compromise.

Whether we were sparring over the cover image or whether to use serial commas or Oxford commas, I never had a sense that either of us was concerned with “winning.” We both wanted the work to win—and it always did. The result is a book that is stronger than what either of us would have produced working unopposed.

Funnily enough, the art of engaged collaboration is the subject of Tobias’ book. And the work itself contains these tensions and contradictions. When talking about how teams can estimate the work on their plate, he offers three chapters with three approaches that contradict each other. A lot of editors might have told him, “Pick one!” but I had learned better from working with him. Team members must always question one another, and part of learning to be comfortable with that kind of chaos is learning to always question oneself, even in face of one’s own strongly-held convictions. If you agree with yourself all the time, you are probably dogmatic.

Hillary Louise Johnson (@hillaryjohnson) is the founder of Dymaxicon and co-author with Chris Sims of The Elements of Scrum. Tobias Mayer blogs at businesscraftsmanship.com.