How to survive the consultation process when everyone has an opinion
You have been charged with getting two proposals off the ground. The first proposal is for a Nuclear Power Plant. The second is for a new Bike Shed.
Way back in 1956, a gentleman by the name of C. Northcote Parkinson described the above scenario to illustrate a concept now referred to as Parkinson’s Law of Triviality.
The thing is, nuclear power is complicated. It requires a lot of specific expert knowledge. So much so in fact, that the average person cannot really understand it all.
Consequently, when faced with a proposal for a power plant, most stakeholders will assume that someone else has checked all the details before it got to them, and rubber stamp it. The proposal glides through the approvals process with minimal friction. Bingo! One Nuclear Power Plant is on its way.
Bike Sheds though? Anyone can understand a bike shed. Everyone has their own ideas and opinions about the best shape for it, the perfect colour, the ideal building materials… All of your stakeholders want to be heard, and to make their mark on your proposal. New stakeholders turn up unexpectedly, bringing even more confusion into the mix.
Everyone wants to feel valuable, to feel like they’re contributing something, and the Bike Shed project is something that everyone feels they can add insight to. Six months and uncountable committee meetings later, you still have no Bike Shed.
In other words, the more accessible a project is, the longer it will take to get it to happen.
This is a curious problem. For some it may even seem like a blessing; ‘Oh, what I would give for people to care about my project!’. But the truth is that, when handled poorly, Bike Shed project consultation can burn huge amounts of time and energy, and end up with little to show.
So what do you do when your team is tasked with building the Bike Shed?
Many projects genuinely benefit from a mass exchange of ideas, a roiling melting pot of gooey brain juices all polishing the shiny gem of a solution. The Bike Shed is not one of those projects; big committees will spell its doom. If you have more than two or three people in a room discussing options, then opinions will be spinning around and around with no hope of resolution.
Ideally, consult one-one-one, or one-on-two. People still feel that their ideas have been heard and understood, and no one ends up in circular, never-ending arguments.
Name your chickens (and your pigs)
If a pig and a chicken were to start a bacon and egg restaurant, then the chicken may be involved, but the pig is deeply committed.
Identify who is genuinely committed to your Bike Shed project, and who’s just an interested party. Make sure everyone understands upfront who the pigs and chickens are in the discussion. Sure, it’s hard to tell someone up front that they’re a chicken – everyone likes to think of themselves as pigs in the decision making process – but it’s a lot easier to have that conversation upfront than to explain it after they’ve over-invested themselves.
Build a straw man
When everyone cares about one particular part of your project, you’ll quickly find yourself inundated with hundreds of disconnected ideas and requirements. Instead of going into your meetings with a blank page and asking for opinions to be added to it, go in with a ‘straw man’ proposal. The good thing about a straw man is that everyone is free to change it, lop bits off, add new bits, or even burn it to the ground (as long as they have an alternative strawman to replace it). But by having a starting point, and a position to compare new proposals to, the discussions you have will be more structured. Your meetings will more often result in a concrete plan than if you hand over the whiteboard markers and invite people to start from scratch.
Show your working out
When you’re proposing something your audience doesn’t really understand in depth (like the nuclear power plant), just showing the final answer is probably best. There’s only one thing to understand, and people can invest all their time in really understanding it properly. When you’re working on a Bike Shed problem though, you’re much better off showing people how you came to a particular answer. Sometimes that’s by enumerating major alternatives along with pros and cons, other times it’s just explaining the sequence of decisions you made to get to the conclusion.
Remember, your audience already understands the basics before you enter the room. They want you to prove to them that your solution is the right one.
If all else fails, add a duck
The team responsible for animating all the pieces for the 80’s video game Battle Chess were well aware of the Bike Shed problem. No matter how perfect their animations were, the executives on the team would insist on one change or another. It happened so often that one enterprising animator came up with a cunning plan.
He made the perfect animation for the queen. Then, he added a small, easily-removable duck to the animation, which waddled around her feet. He presented the combined animation to his executive team. They approved everything, with one caveat: “get rid of the duck”.
If all else fails, and you still haven’t managed to get your Bike Shed project approved, maybe it’s time to give in and add a duck.
Consulting on a Bike Shed project can be challenging, but there are some strategies you can use to make it easier. Consulting in small numbers, identifying your Chickens and Pigs, starting with a “straw man” proposal, and showing how you reached your proposed solution can all help guide your stakeholders towards a useful discussion. And if those don’t work, an extra duck might just do the trick.