Cult of the Obvious

Cult of the Obvious

I think we’ve all had moments when an ‘obvious’ idea is unreasonable, but inexplicably supported by others.

 “Obviously, we should create an engagement committee to handle the day to day for the financial governance committee. Engagement is a key driver of our financial results.”

“Good point Drake, I’d hate to be someone who doesn’t support engagement or committees”

Ideas can be so imbued with ‘obviousness’ that they elicit an almost religious reaction. There are days I’m convinced I’m the only one not performing the sacred rites of St. Ad Oculos.

“Yes brother analyst, crowdsource is our innovation leverage. Agile cloud engagement is the one true platform. Our Executive has all the answers, we must follow his wisdom. In the name of consistency, ship it”

That would explain the hooded cloaks and candles I got at new employee orientation.

We all have ways of justifying the rationality of our choices. Obviousness is usually justified by history, herd-thinking, and leader mythology.

“That’s how they did it last time. Now we have a good reason to do it that way.” 

“I’d hate to be the fool who can’t understand agile cloud enragement like the rest of us.”

“Our leader wants more agile cloud engagement. She has secret knowledge of the one true platform only a chosen few can understand.”

Mercifully, the answer to “am I the only one who sees how stupid this idea is?” is usually no. People who are baffled by the ‘obvious’ ideas begin to form pockets of sanity where they can join forces.

“Do you have any openings on your team? I was told I need to ship more agile cloud engagement.”

Sometimes these pockets of sanity become an escape. This escapism can disconnect you from reality and over time it may start to create a new kind of ‘obvious.’

“Obviously, committees should never be used. They should dissolve the financial governance committee. Do you not trust your people to spend money well?”

“Obviously, two years ago they made a bad decision and every decision they make will be terrible for decades.”

So, how do you know when your ‘pocket of sanity’ has become a cult of its own? Here are some signs:

  • You’re always agreeing on every decision
  • Your ‘pocket of sanity’ has been the same for the past year
  • Your ‘pocket of sanity’ is only in one department
  • You haven’t ever thought that the other way may have something right about it
  • Your definition of sanity uses biz-phrases (e.g., “we’re the real agile cloud”)

Give the obvious it’s day in the sun, but let it stand on nothing but it’s own merit.

Subtitles

One of the challenges with being a business practitioner and a philosopher is that your imagination sometimes takes over during meetings. The other day I was in a meeting with executives who were discussing a very complex problem. I started to notice a disparity between what everyone was saying and what they were communicating.

Because one can only listen to so much corporate-speak, I started imagining subtitles to match the meaning underneath the words. Here’s a couple of the gems I found:

“I think it’s really important and we should be thinking about this.” (I’m not going to put my reputation out there)

“That’s above my pay grade” (I recuse myself from decision-making responsibility. Let’s have our bosses fight it out?)

“What do you think?” (our CEO agrees, do you disagree?)

“A lot of other people have thought about this.” (I needed to tell you that you aren’t that special. Also, I didn’t really listen to what you just said and I’d rather not discuss it.)

“That’s the right direction.” (When you figure it out I’d love to participate)

“This other team might be the right team to help you” (I’m not going to help)

“But what is our MVP?” (I don’t think we should build that)

“This piece is separate from that piece” (I don’t care if this is interdependent, I don’t want to do that work) 

“How will we balance the near and long term?” (Can you find me an easy answer?)

“I hear you, and we don’t have an answer” (That question needs to be answered soon)

“What about lawsuits?” (I’m not sure I understand the discussion, I’d rather talk about something really tangible or nothing at all)

“I hear you, and we don’t have an answer” (That’s a really tactical question, and it isn’t important.)

 

Hidden Disagreements

Hidden Disagreements

Language in all it’s abundant complexity offers multitudinous opportunities for misunderstanding. We’ve all been in meetings or conversations where it suddenly becomes apparent that people’s understanding and use of a phrase dramatically differs from our own in a meaningful way.

“How are the new engines for these bicycles?”
“Great!”
“When can we stick them to the frame? The glue is ready.”
“Wait, you mean engine stickers? I was designing a motorcycle”

Where there was the perception of understanding, a hidden disagreement has been discovered.

It isn’t always ignorance, sometimes it’s just a complex idea combined with complex perspectives and many possible interpretations. They usually show up if we discuss enough.

 

 

Don’t worry about it. Here are the best ways to act when you identify hidden disagreements:

 

Tell Someone Else- Decide the other person’s understanding isn’t important right now and the underlying disagreement isn’t as important to you. This usually requires a pretty bold statement after the meeting like: “I just knew they weren’t going to get past that misunderstanding.”

Force Clarity in the Moment- Get the same definition and perspective. Lock the door and bar the windows. If the other party is unwilling to come to agreement, they’ve disqualified themselves from having a voice. “Let’s hash this out at a time that’s really inconvenient for you”

Cut Others Out- They just didn’t get it. Remember it isn’t worth it if you might have to compromise on your position. “No, why would you think Greg would stick with us after the first week?”

Claim ‘Fault’ to Your Credit- Tell them this was on you, because you didn’t explain things well enough. People especially like to hear that it may have been their lesser intellect that caused the misunderstanding. Be sure to humbly suggest that you listen to them the next time around, because that way you’ll be able to think for the both of you. “My bad Susan, I should have thought for both of us.”

Swap It Like a Pro- Decide you liked their interpretation better. Now be the loudest advocate for that version. Don’t announce or acknowledge the change or trouble yourself with an explanation for the shift. This goes really well with a few others in the room so that you can explain to them how you didn’t change your opinion at all. “That’s what I’ve been saying about less revenue. We need LESS less revenue.”

Piledrive Them- Bury them in explanations. This is a pretty good move when you’re in a tight spot especially when you’ve realized your perspective isn’t a really solid position. Pile driving tends to stun the listener as they try to keep up with the syllable barrage you’ve salvoed. Be careful, crafty people will Swap It after a solid piledriver.

 

 

Clap for Me

Mandatory corporate cheerleading tires me. Especially when that experience is an awkward mandatory clap for Drake’s (truly the great everyman of our time) latest powerpoint presentation about our falling revenues.

I can only think of a few explanations for why leaders mandate cheerleading and use it profusely:

  1.  You think your team is gullible and you want to pay them with pats on the back and mandatory applause from their peers.
  2. You think your team is emotionally needy.

For 1: You need to get real. An encouraging atmosphere is great, but performances like group applause and putting your name on a cake don’t last. What’s worse, employees usually know what you are doing and act to that effect. You run the risk of reinforcing externality and fame-seeking. A team focused on externality tries to predict and satisfy leader whims, not goals.

For 2: Even if your team is needy, their desire for cheerleading doesn’t make it any less demeaning when you comply. I’d wager they are a lot more capable of maturing than you are giving them credit. While you can’t take personal responsibility for their maturity, you can craft a culture that reinforces or challenges their dependence on cheering. 

At it’s heart, corporate cheerleading arrives from a belief in the inferiority of the masses. Belief in superiority is a  consequence of the ego that subtly develops with many leaders’ careers. It can manifest itself cynically (see 1.), pseudo-empathetically (see 2.), or finally in complicit ignorance where one carries on the traditions of the past.

Well Executed Failure

I’d like to talk about how strategic is different from tactical. Before you go calling me Tactico-Strategicus, be warned that I differ in perspective with the tyrant in an important way. If you remember, the tyrant views tactical and strategic as a balance between near and long term plans. I’d rather distinguish strategic and tactical as occupying two different realms of thought.

The realm of strategic thought is known by it’s compelling need to understand a problem. Such a compulsion prioritizes decision options, evaluating outcomes, and anticipating consequences. The realm of tactical thought is known by it’s preoccupation with solving a problem. Such preoccupation values methods, techniques, and application of tools.

Tactical thought is advantageous in circumstances when action is at a premium and a clear target has already been set. Strategic thought enables you to move beyond the problem as it was provided, to gain deeper insight into the real problem. Remember, no matter how elegant, a solution that misunderstands the problem is a well executed failure.

Ask a Damn Question

Early philosophers made a big deal of separating “true belief” from “knowledge”.  The spiritual father of this distinction would have to be Socrates as a character in the Dialogues of Plato.  He constantly harps on about how knowing a good deed is different from knowing why it is good.  He believes strongly in the value of knowledge, mostly because it has been tested through inquiry.  Knowledge gives one a standard by which to judge other actions.  Socrates might even tell us that those with true belief are lucky, while those with a knowledge of good are truly virtuous.  Another way to understand Socrates would be thinking about the difference between people who are intuitive versus people who have researched a topic.  The intuitive thinker may get the right answer, but Socrates fears that without research he may not completely understand the core of the topic.

Philosophical inquiry is not the only field in which this distinction makes an appearance.  Imagine you are collaborating with a coworker, Drake.  We have had several stories of “Drake” and his foibles in the office setting.  In this case Drake is working with you on implementing a solution to a Customer Experience issue in a retail setting.  Drake previously worked in retail and is ready and willing to throw all else to the side and dredge up his considerable experience.  Here Drake runs into an issue, he has had success with specific approaches in the past and refuses to investigate our topic any further.  He has confidence that he knows what the issues are, because he has had success solving problems before.

Now when you believe you know something you do not have to ask others about it.  You do not conduct interviews, nor do you examine the core of the issue at hand.  Drake quickly deploys tactics he has used before.  He fails spectacularly.  Drake is a failure because he does not understand the difference between “true belief” and “knowledge”.  Socrates would righteously chastise Drake for failing to ask the right questions.  Drake did not test his belief to see if he had knowledge.

The take away is simple.  Ask a damn question.  All inquiry begins and grows by asking questions.  If Drake had gotten of his high horse and asked questions of those who he was professing to help he may have realized that he didn’t actually “know” what was going on.  He merely had beliefs informed by previous success.  You cannot be sure of knowledge unless you have tested it, all else is equivalent to belief.  Who would rather act on belief over actually knowledge when given the choice?

Thought Leaders for the Insecure – PT 1

You are in a meeting discussing plans to move forward on a new tool. A business tool that many of the higher up believe will provide some great value to the company. But what this tool is and how to build it needs to be decided on. Many important people are gathered and one of them begins to speak. Suddenly, like a firework in the darkest night, bright and bold words illuminate the room. Many are enraptured, but you, you are struck with the cold truth. The bitter cup is yours. Those words, bright and flashy, are completely devoid of what any rational human would understand to be meaningful content. This one, this ejaculator of flashy phrases and buzzy business words, is dangerous.

He is a mortar launching booming phrases like;

“gamification of this current ideating segment”

“agile platform dashboards”

“synergistic antagonism”

“thought experimental MVP”

“global-centric innovative cloud”

“but, what is the ROI on this?”

 

While admittedly there are times to ask that final question, the individual in question will ask it at every opportunity because at some point the shitty business leadership book they read said to keep it in mind. No situation is off limits to the ROI question or any term of similar ilk. A good example is asking in any situation “but how does this sound in the cloud?

This person can sink a project, cripple a meeting, and divide an organization. The danger lies not in spewing nonsense, any fool can do that. The danger lies in the fact that often these people become thought leaders among the insecure. It becomes imperative that this sort of mental heresy be identified and contained at the beginning, before it can spread. I will discuss how to contain the damage in part two of this topic.