Going in circles? Can’t decide, or agree? Are people bumping heads?

Here’s two methods to handle disagreement when leading team full of smart people.

Over past 13 years as a (still first time) CTO, I’ve come across two models that have proven to be helpful time and again when navigating tough decisions and disagreements.

They’re also great 1:1 coaching tools, especially when signs of apathy, contempt or overwhelm are starting to show.


At the heart of it, a disagreement can be people ‘talking past each other’. We have a different view on the shared reality.

There are so many ways this can happen! Whether a feature should be built, or removed. Deciding which tool to use. It could be more fundamental — recognising that our current strategy isn’t working, and needing to make a courageous change in the team or the business.

Sometimes, it manifests as a personality clash.


We need a way to frame it in a way that enables us to generate options for moving forward.

Building agreement is about feeling genuinely heard, uncovering assumptions, correcting misunderstandings, and finding connections between these views.

So that the ‘disagreement space’ can become smaller and easier to reason about.

See clearly

By using these models, there’s a high chance that find a way to agree, and map a solid way forward that everyone buys into.

Now, we might still conclude that we fundamentally disagree, but now it’ll be clear about what, and why. And, we’ll have also be clear about which details we do not disagree on — a shared vision of the world. This is helpful when keeping our eyes open for new information or opportunities to handle the disagreement in future (because sometimes, these things take time to work out).

Let’s check them out.

Model 1: the Spine Model

The model

Needs → Values → Principles → Practices → Tools

Key takeaways

  • Needs are our ground truth. Start with clearly stating and empathising with each other’s needs.

  • Work down the spine through Values/Principles (a 2-layer ‘things we care about’ lens) down to Practices (’things we actually do’) and Tools (’mechanisms we use to do those things).

  • Ensure that everyone recognises these conclusions. Use them to generate questions and options for moving forward.

  • If we disagree ‘upstream’, we’re not going to agree ‘downstream’. You’ll save time and energy avoiding frustrating, fruitless discussion.

More reading

Credit goes to Kevin Trethewey and Danie Roux.

Model 2: Layers of resistance

The model

  1. We Do Not Agree on the Problem

  2. We Do Not Agree on the Direction of the Solution

  3. We Do Not Agree That the Proposed Solution Resolves the Problem

  4. Yes But... the Proposed Solution Will Create Other Problems

  5. Yes But... there Are Huge Obstacles to Implementing the Proposed Solution

  6. Unverbalised Fear

Key takeaways

  • See if you can find one or more of these layers in the points people are making.

  • Reflect this back to them - “it seems you are saying ___, is that right?”

  • If we reach unverbalised fear, that’s also useful; we can recognise that perhaps folks are simply overwhelmed and can’t reason clearly at the moment. This could signal a need to delegate, or defer, or work on solving some other more fundamental issue first.

  • Like the Spine, ensure that everyone recognises these conclusions. Use them to generate questions and options for moving forward.

  • Like the Spine, if we disagree upstream, it’s unlikely we’ll agree downstream. You’ll save time and energy.

More reading

The Layers of Resistance - The Buy-In Process According to TOC, by Efrat Goldratt-Ashlag (Eli’s daughter!)

Credit goes to Eliyahu Goldratt, author of The Goal and Theory of Constraints.

Now you try it out

Use these two tools to disagree constructively and find a way forward for your team.

Save time and energy avoiding useless discussion.

Focus the effort on the right layer in either model (i.e. where there's actually disagreement), and use the appropriate language to have that debate.

There’s other bonuses: Emotions calm. Empathy and trust builds. You get to learn a ton about each other, and the problem space you occupy together.

And, if you disagree with me, now you have two great ways to say how 😎

In case this was forwarded to you:

Hi. I’m Robert Stuttaford.

In this Knowledge Worker's Toolkit newsletter, I introduce, explain, tell stories, share past experiences, and explore the connections and intersections of all the various systems thinking & knowledge work concepts & models I've encountered during my tenure as CTO at Cognician, over the past 13 years (and counting!)

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