(@tgoetz) is an
and journalist. He
his digital health
startup and now
serves as chief of
research at GoodRx.
THOMAS GOETZ ; LAUNCHPAD
Don’t Solve the Wrong Problem
Sometimes a conflict is all about
ot long ago, I was presented
with a routine, even boring,
workplace problem. We redesigned a part of our website,
and altered some basic func-tionality. Some colleagues
learned of the change only
when they went online, and
were ba;ed by the new flow.
And so began a tempest: Why was this change made? Who
had given the OK? And wasn’t the old way better, anyway?
This was just one small hu; in the long history of conflicting
opinions. But as a company grows, and decisions get more
distant from the people who have to execute them, a di;erent
kind of conflict emerges. These disputes may seem like they’re
about a single decision with a specific adverse e;ect (the wrong
redesign). But they’re actually disagreements about process
(Why wasn’t I consulted?), not the decision. Learning to distinguish between the two is invaluable for any leader.
Here’s how I’ve learned to map the di;erence. A decision
conflict is one in which colleagues disagree about a choice that
was made—anything from choosing a product strategy or a
company priority or the wording of an email campaign. When
someone disagrees, it’s a pretty simple matter to determine if
the objection has merit, or whether its an opinion that will be
duly noted but not addressed. You make the call and move on.
But a process conflict is a di;erent beast. Disagreements
over process emerge when a decision lacks expected input
or participation from meaningful stakeholders, or where
one decision (often made unilaterally) contradicts shared
priorities or strategies. In these cases, protocol was not
followed, and unpacking the problem requires chasing down
what happened and why.
Here’s what I’ve learned after about a decade of startups:
These are distinct kinds of conflicts, but they get conflated
all the time, and a process conflict gets treated as a decision
conflict. This means that people waste time and energy trying
to solve the wrong problem: They’re second-guessing and
litigating the decision, when the real grievance is that a
process wasn’t followed. Indeed, the aggrieved may not truly
disagree with the decision at all, but are putting up a fight
because they weren’t consulted along the way.
And as obvious as the di;erence between a decision conflict
and a process conflict might appear, in the heat of the moment
most people struggle to disentangle the two. Often, leaders
will reverse a decision but miss the opportunity to delineate
a process that would help sort out disputes down the line. In
other words, they solve the wrong problem.
It’s essential for leaders, especially in rapidly expanding
startups, to grow their organization’s decision-making process in lockstep with scaling the organization. I’ve failed to do
this myself. A few years ago, I was in a leadership meeting in
which a new production process was presented for final
executive approval. Despite being an executive, I was caught
o;-guard: The new process would require that I change the
way I worked. My response, sad to admit, was to question the
whole thing, creating more than a hiccup in the rollout. In
time, I realized that my issue wasn’t with the new—and
better—schedule, but with the fact that I hadn’t really been
given a heads-up about its requirements.
These days, when I’m presented with a grievance, I’ve
learned to first hold the problem up to the light: Is this really
about a failure in decision making, or is the issue really a failure
of process? More often than not, it’s the process that went
south. So, step back, and make sure that protocols are heeded—
or, if necessary, make those protocols clear for everyone. This
distinction won’t spell the end of conflicts in your organization.
But it will help you better solve those that arise.