Disputes are common over technology

The project was grinding to a halt.

Nobody wanted to lose developer X, not because he was especially friendly with anyone else on the team, but he had specific knowledge which, at the time, was deemed irreplaceable. Additionally, the organization was growing much faster than X was able to keep up. For a long time X was the entirety of the technical department of this small organization, now they were bringing in an outside consultancy to perform was was previously his sole domain. Worse, without the full cooperation of X the project was running into systems difficulties. This project had reached an impasse, no appeals from authority had been able to get things moving again. The ultimate sanction was unavailable against X and all the parties knew it. It was time for an attempt at an alternative strategy to solve this problem.

It was time for technology mediation.

Mediation is a process of dispute resolution which facilitates conflicted parties towards a negotiated settlement of their issues. The mediator uses a developed understanding of dispute resolution techniques in attempts to bring the parties to a joint solution. Mediation is not arbitration; in an arbitration the parties present their cases to a third party for a decision to be rendered. (Not seen as a realistic possibility in the situation above.) The mediator differs from an arbitrator in that they have no authority to settle the dispute. In a mediation the goal is to have the parties present their positions to each other, then work on solutions with the mediator acting as a facilitator for those discussions.

In areas where disputes may lead to the emotional, financial and time cost of court litigation, mediation provides a faster, and cost-effective attempt at a solution. With a judge or arbitrator the solutions are imposed upon litigants; in mediation the solutions are mutually agreed upon and therefore do not feel imposed but rather accepted. This can lead to a greater willingness to cooperate in the solution’s success. Mediation is not limited to legal disputes, but is applicable in areas of personal and business life.

Technical mediation is the application of domain specific knowledge to bring a richness of depth to the mediation process (in our case IT/software engineering/web development). We are able to use our technical expertise to provide a relevant, technical, contextual layer to the mediation. Specific technical concepts (which may prove meaningless to the inexperienced) are used in getting to the heart of the matter.

Why should you mediate in technical disputes

In the disputes we mediate there is rarely a straightforward legal option for remedy. Team-based disagreement is usually arbitrated by a project manager or other immediate superior.

It is important in technical disputes to try and allow those with the expertise to discover their own solutions. Pushing agendas from the top down rarely results in positive outcome. This is especially true when those pushing the contrived solution are perceived as having a less-than-complete understanding of the technical issues. Moreover, unlike civil matters or legal disputes, there is no “authority” over the technical matters. There are authorities over the individuals, but not over their deep-rooted concepts of what constitutes the most correct approach to any individual problem. There are usually strong opinions about how-things-should-be and generally accepted best practices; rarely do all teams agree on the one true way. Imposing technical authority because of corporate authority is not the best pathway to solution (nor always the most expedient). Whereas two parties may be in dispute, a third party “authority” may have a completely differing set of views, resulting not in a solution, but rather further disharmony!

Understandings in a technical mediation

It is important to understand in the technical culture your value be perceived in terms of the depth of your knowledge of the subject at hand. Placing oneself in-between knowledgeable parties without specific domain knowledge is not only unhelpful, but destructive to the environment. Your contributions may be discounted or even ignored. While technical expertise may not be a prerequisite for conducing a successful mediation, it may be necessary to earn the trust of the parties involved.

Our project facilitation services often put us in a mediator’s role. There are a number of common disputes, including:

  • Project Transfer
    The often difficult task of transitioning projects between teams or organizations.
  • Engineering Logjam
    Projects stalling because of disputes of the technical approach.
  • Scope Creep
    When the project needs more (or no more) and there is a difference of opinion.
  • Functionality Interpretation
    Individuals may interpret specification in a differing manner, resulting in later disagreement.

Solutions to technical issues are often seen in binary terms: either completely right or completely wrong. These positions are often defended past the point of absurdity. Compromise happens in the space between.

The goal of a technical mediation is to help the parties discover the space between and move towards it. Fortunately, the technical culture is that of problem solvers and this provides a good foundation for this type of mediation. There is a wealth of experience in solving the problems between man and machine. Rarely, however, is as much practice put in solving the problems between themselves. With the proper understanding of the solution space, the technical mediator performs an important facilitatory role in bringing parties towards successful outcomes.