The Illusion of Agreement

Most times we aren’t thinking the same thing even when we seem to agree.

Image from zmsn

Picture this. You’re working with a team of 5 on a project about something you all are very passionate about. Everyone decides to set up a call on Google meet where you brainstorm and discuss your wonderful ideas. Tasks are distributed and you agree to meet again in 1 week to share your progress reports.

1 week later and, alas! Nothing fits with the other.

While the easy culprit would be that your team members weren’t listening, more often than not, that’s not the case. In fact, they were probably very attentive and simply pictured something entirely different.

Every human is unique. And as cliché as that sounds, the truth is we’ve all had the most diverse sets of experiences. Coupled with the complexity that is the human mind, two people could hear the same piece of information, verbally agree, but have very different mental images of what is being discussed. Nobody can see what the other person is thinking but they assume it’s the same thing. This phenomenon is what has been termed The Illusion of Agreement. It is all too common and it can hurt your projects and your team in very bad ways.

“…two people could hear the same piece of information, verbally agree, but have very different mental images of what is being discussed.”

The last and equally important consequence is that it kills team spirit. (An expression I find funny because spirits aren’t really meant to die). The reality is that members of a team like to feel like they are a part of a bigger, progressive picture. And so when they don’t get that, the results can be devastating: low morale and high turnover rates. They leave, not because employee benefits are nonexistent, but because they want to be part of something that works.

So then, what to do? In this article, I outline two (2) proven steps that have worked for me and my teams and helped us avoid the illusion of agreement

1. Start every project with a scope of work

The importance of a well written scope of work (SOW) cannot be overstated. It helps to ensure everybody involved in a project is on the same page and that they all share the same understanding of the relevant details. Another day I’ll write on how to craft a mean scope of work but two important things to note here are goals and omissions.

It is absolutely important to set SMART goals; specific, measurable, action-oriented, relevant and time-bound goals. Extra emphasis on the specific. Your SOW should clearly highlight the specific goals of your projects. Omissions help to further cement the specifics of your projects. Here you list all the things your project is not about and all the areas that are not to be considered. This might sound a little extra but it ultimately helps your team to not put time and resources into activities that are not relevant to the desired outcomes of the project.

2. Use sketches when communicating your ideas

This is a meeting best practice to aid effective communication, whether virtually or in-person. This is because sometimes, even clearly written words can still be interpreted by different parties in different ways. Ideas are an abstract thing, but once there is a sketch, a wireframe, a low fidelity prototype, it becomes a lot more tangible. In the words of Jonathan Ive, Apple’s former Chief Design Officer before his departure in 2019, “Things are exceptionally fragile as an idea — entirely abstract — but once there is an object between us, it is galvanizing.”
There is a reason why designers of all kind — interior decors, engineering design, architects — always refer to a blueprint when working on projects. That way, ideas can be digested quicker and rightly too.

“Things are exceptionally fragile as an idea — entirely abstract — but once there is an object between us, it is galvanizing.” — Jonathan Ive

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