Management Concepts Press (Author)
Publication date: 07/01/2009
The 77 Deadly
Sins of Project
Acquiescence is the act or condition of giving tacit assent; agreement or consent by silence or without objection; compliance. In project management, acquiescence can create a false sense of consensus.
The best way to define acquiescence in the context of project management is to consider the Abilene paradox. The Abilene paradox is a management concept observed and articulated by Jerry Harvey, professor emeritus at George Washington University. It refers to the behavior of a group of people when they make a collective decision that is counter to the wishes of anyone in the group. Simply put, it’s the tendency of groups to make decisions that no one individually really likes or supports. People in the group go along without questioning the decision because of fear, a need to conform, or perhaps an attempt to avoid conflict with the group or their superiors. The acquiescence, or tacit agreement, of each individual on a project team results in a decision that appears to be a consensus decision but in reality is not supported by the team.
Part of our social behavior, acquiescence is evident in social interactions everywhere. In organizations, acquiescence is usually an outgrowth of organizational culture. An organization that is very consensus-oriented, and that actively or passively discourages individual drive, is one that foundationally supports and could nurture harmful acquiescence. Interestingly, acquiescence can be manifested on projects positively or negatively.
Positive acquiescence is manifested when a project team is moving toward a decision, team members agree with the decision, and they give their tacit agreement through silence to expedite the decision. In such a situation, acquiescence is helpful because team members are supporting the operation of the project team through their behavior.
Negative acquiescence is manifested when a project team is moving toward a decision, team members do not agree with the decision, and they enable future conflict or disruption by giving their tacit agreement through silence. In such a situation, acquiescence is not helpful because team members are hindering the operation of the project team through their behavior.
A Case of Acquiescence
On agile teams, the person who represents the business organization is designated the “product owner.” The product owner is responsible for maximizing the financial return of the product by defining business value, facilitating the creation of product features, prioritizing those features, and deciding the order and combinations in which the product features are released. The product owner’s role is crucial; he or she must not only be knowledgeable about the business, but must also be empowered by the business organization to make decisions on its behalf. Because agile teams operate in short, time-boxed iterations or sprints, time is of the essence every day. Therefore, the speed of an agile team (and its success or failure) hinges on good decisions made quickly by the product owner.
One of the organizations with which I worked enthusiastically embarked on an agile initiative; unfortunately, they just could not seem to empower their product owners. Besides having a deep interest and commitment to its teams and associates, this organization had an overly consensus-driven culture. Any decision had to have the agreement of all parties involved, including almost the entire management chain of command. This meant that when a product feature was being considered, the product owner had to take the discussion back to management and get its approval before moving forward. The resulting lag in decision-making seriously hampered the team’s ability to deliver customer value.
In this case, acquiescence on the part of multiple team members resulted in compliance with organizational culture to the detriment of the team. The project manager and other team members, although openly unhappy with the situation in team meetings, failed to raise the non-empowerment of the product owner as an issue with senior managers and other stakeholders in project retrospectives and reviews. The product owner and senior managers also gave their tacit agreement to the norms of the organizational culture, even though they knew those norms were in conflict with the rapid decision-making required for an agile approach to succeed.
The short-term cost of the problem was that project deliverables took much longer than necessary because of the delay in decision-making. The long-term cost of the problem was that the teams were not able to achieve the rapid, incremental delivery that agile methods are designed to facilitate, and therefore the investment in agile methods was not as profitable as it could have been.
Acquiescence is a very difficult problem to identify, surface, and resolve. It sometimes requires active disagreement and even conflict on the team, which may not be comfortable for some members. To address negative acquiescence effectively, a project manager needs to understand each team member’s personality and style. For example, if a team member who is usually loquacious quietly goes along with a decision, it might be worth taking that person aside and discussing the decision privately. Danger signs of acquiescence include significant decisions being agreed on by all members of the team too quickly and an increase in private conversations taking place outside regular team interactions.
The problems caused by acquiescence can be hard to detect. Awareness is a key first step toward overcoming negative acquiescence. It’s important to recognize that organizational culture and norms may be encouraging or rewarding this behavior.
The solution to resolving negative acquiescence lies in getting better at managing agreement. Primarily, project managers need to understand that this is more a problem of managing agreement rather than of managing conflict.
Tips for Addressing Acquiescence
Ensure that all affected team members actively contribute to the discussion around team decisions.
Facilitate an organized discussion, with each person getting an explicit turn to speak his or her mind, voicing at least one concern even with a decision they support.
Capture and circulate the team’s agreement in writing to avoid any misunderstandings.
Create an environment where team members are not afraid to speak their minds.