Embracing Positive Disagreements in Engineering Firms

Pearls are lovely beautiful gems that develop inside the bodies of living creatures. The process begins when foreign objects such as parasites penetrate the soft, inner body of an oyster. When lodged inside, these objects cause some irritation, yet the oysters cannot digest or expel them from their bodies. To reduce the irritation, the Oyster activates a natural defense mechanism which causes it to release a smooth, hard crystalline substance that covers the foreign object.

The Oyster continues to secrete layers of the protective substance around the irritant until it is completely encased by the crystalline coating. As a result, this process produces a beautiful pearl.

Just like Oysters, engineering firms create better products or are more innovative when there is some irritation in the form of positive disagreements. Usually, the success of any project requires collaboration among the management, engineering, marketing, individuals, and external third-party entities. However, due to diverse backgrounds, experiences, and goals, there are likely to be some disagreements along the way.

Although expressing opposing views may appear disrespectful, unnecessary, or disruptive, it can create positive outcomes when encouraged and handled in a controlled manner.

Encouraging Disagreements in Organizations

Supporting positive disagreements in engineering firms can help them to accomplish greater things. There are plenty of cases regarding successful engineering firms where business leaders encouraged disagreements.

For example:

  • Henry Ford, the founder of Ford Motors, is quoted as saying “If there is any one secret of success, it lies in the ability to get the other person’s point of view and see things from that person’s angle as well as from your own.” This is asking people not to make a critical decision until they have considered all possible perspectives.
  • There is also the story of Alfred P. Sloan Jr., who was the president of General Motors between 1923 and 1946. At one time, Sloan postponed deciding on a proposal upon realizing that everyone agreed easily. In one of the General Motors top committees, Sloan is quoted as saying “Gentlemen, I take it we are all in complete agreement on the decision here.” When all the members nodded in agreement, He had this to say: “Then, I propose we postpone further discussion of this matter until our next meeting to give ourselves time to develop disagreement and perhaps gain some understanding of what the decision is all about.”
  • The other one is the case of Steve Jobs, the late Apple CEO, who initially opposed the idea of creating iTunes for the Windows platform. Considering that Microsoft was a competitor, Steve wasn’t comfortable with the proposal, which was proposed by his juniors. However, he did not kill the idea. Ultimately, he had to change his mind and support the idea that saw iTunes become one of the most successful Apple products.

The above examples and many more show how even the top management can change their positions and support what is good for the company. However, it is only possible when employees are free to disagree and argue positively.

Why Teams Disagree

Since an engineering firm presents a dynamic environment with multiple visions and goals, disagreements at the individual or departmental level are inevitable. Differences in experience, opinions, goals, strategies, and others are likely to cause some tension between product managers, marketing, engineering, quality control, and other teams.

Although the organizations will have a shared objective, each of the teams may have unique goals in addition to some members having different opinions or views about a task or process.

While team harmony is necessary for ensuring a team or company’s success, too much of it can be dangerous. Scientific research shows that reducing it can enhance innovation in engineering firms. Some of the issues that cause disruption include task uncertainty, fewer resources such as manpower, money, and time, as well as diversity in organizations.

In any work environment, there are likely to be three types of disagreements.

  • Task conflicts when teams or members have different opinions or viewpoints about a task or goal.
  • Process conflict when there are disagreements on the method or approach to perform a task.
  • Relationship conflicts that arise due to personal differences. This can have negative effects.

Typical disagreements in Engineering Firms

A typical engineering firm may comprise product managers, a marketing department, engineers, developers and QA, operations, and user experience, teams. Each of these will have its specific goals and there are likely to be process- and task-related disagreements within and between teams.

Productive tensions may arise between different departments for various reasons. For instance, while the product managers and marketing department would want to ship products as fast as possible, dissatisfied UX and QA teams may prefer delaying the launch.

disagreements in engineering

In most cases, the disagreeing teams would like to thoroughly test and address issues to ensure that what goes to the market is a user-friendly product with zero bugs. Also, operations may not want to ship out new products because this will demand more support, which can put pressure on them.

This is understandable since each team has its specific and genuine goals. However, the firm’s revenues and satisfied users are important and the various groups must come to a consensus and agree on the best way to provide a technically and commercially successful product.

For example, the QA teams may disagree with a certain feature of a product, like the user interface. This, of course, will mean a delay in the release, which obviously will upset the marketing department and management. However, agreeing to make such an important enhancement ensures a better product that customers will like. Ideally, organizations should leave some room for such setbacks.

In another example, an engineering startup may have several challenges such as limited staff, money, or adequate time to build and thoroughly test and market a product before releasing it.

Product managers may want to launch the product early and then fine-tune the user experience after receiving feedback just the way major companies such as Google and Apple start by releasing beta versions. On the other hand, the CEO or business owner might be more worried about the brand, fearing that first-time users who get a bad experience may never give the company another chance in the future.

Benefits of Positive Disagreements in Engineering Companies

When organizations encourage productive tasks or process conflicts, they allow the teams and individuals to disagree, work under some tension, and negotiate positively. This has the potential to provide better or more innovative processes and products. It creates an environment where people are not afraid to disagree or talk about their opinions, even when they are contrary to others.

Managing disagreements properly has the potential to create positive outcomes. Some of these include;

  • Constructive disagreements have the potential to expose risks in a particular design and will thereby allow the team members to brainstorm and come up with innovative solutions or new and better ideas. Encouraging these allows the teams to think critically instead of going with the flow.
  • Providing opportunities for engineers, marketers, product developers, and other employees to learn and grow. People learn when other employees challenge their ideas. As they listen and get feedback from colleagues, they learn and gain experience.
  • Improve collaboration and problem-solving. A positive crisis encourages team members to think critically and face difficult situations with open minds. This enables them to come up with well-thought-out solutions to problems. Although uncomfortable, the disagreements are a catalyst for innovations, they allow people to look at issues from different angles, think critically, and address risks.
  • Strengthen teamwork morale, communication, and productivity. Encouraging such positive disagreements helps to improve the communication between various members within a team as well as between different departments. It creates an inclusive work environment where every individual and team is free to disagree, express their opinions, and engage positively towards creating a better work environment.

Building Trust

Encouraging disagreements helps to build trust and an environment where everyone respects other people’s views. As most people often conform to group thinking for fear of being laughed at or looked down on, encouraging disagreements helps to reduce such fears and tensions.

People with different views have the freedom to express themselves. If the proponents prove their ideas to be better, the opposing person will accept and put his or her efforts forward, knowing that the agreed position is the best. If companies discourage disagreements, most employees will accept what others are saying while their ideas, which may be better, will never see the light of the day.

Disrupting The Harmony in Teams

Most business leaders argue that contrary to popular belief, success and happiness in an organization are a much bigger threat than a moderate level of dissatisfaction. When everyone is happy or seems to be so, they are likely just trying to comply with the status quo, and not eager to air their views.

The natural pearls are difficult and rare to recover because Oysters are making them at the bottom of the ocean. However, people have invented a method of creating and implanting the irritants into the Oysters in a controlled environment where they then harvest the pearls once they are ready.

When disagreements do not come naturally, the leaders ought to fight the harmony by injecting and controlling some tension into the organizations. To achieve this, managers in engineering firms can introduce the devil’s advocate to cause some discomfort in a rather harmonious group. This disrupts the status quo and hence allows team members to critically look at all their decisions.

Usually, the role of the devil’s advocate is to poke holes, challenge the decisions or product features, and raise some seemingly annoying queries that help people look at a design or solution critically. This enables them to look at the risks and provide the best possible solutions.

Handling Disagreements in Engineering Firms

Disagreements within or between engineering teams are inevitable and aren’t that bad after all. However, they can only benefit the company when there is effective communication and understanding, and when people follow some ground rules.

Great companies spend a lot of time building and supporting successful products. They have to make several mistakes, disagree, accommodate all positive ideas, however disruptive they may be and eventually agree on a common path.

Ideally, individuals must respect each other’s point of view, analyze the opposing ideas, and commit to supporting whichever provides the best value. This requires support from top management as well as everybody else in the organization.


Generally, disagreements are normal, healthy, and inevitable when there are several people with different backgrounds, expertise, and goals. A conflict-free work environment may not be good for the engineering firm.

If discouraged, engineers, testers, marketers, and other professionals may never point out flaws or defects in the products or strategies. However, organizations must learn to manage different views effectively. With such an approach, the disagreements serve as catalysts for innovation and improvement, rather than hindrances.