Have an Opinion – Part 1

Written by Travis R. Rogers, Director of Software Engineering for Axispoint

Spend a little time around Axispoint and eventually you’ll hear someone extoll the virtues of “having an opinion”. Having an opinion is required in order to facilitate how we work, this is the first of 3 articles that define what we mean and discusses many of the related dynamics. Part 1 will begin the definition and provide some reasons that this technique is valuable.

Future articles separate from this series will provide specifics on how having an opinion facilitates other parts of our work style and environment (i.e. “Design is a Contact Sport” and “Design is a (benevolent?) Dictatorship”).

Truth: The “someone” mentioned above is often me, which might just be a way to justify my actions. Regardless, having an opinion has long been valued within Axispoint and although pervasive and perpetual; until recently, was more subconscious than manifest. Illogical…I know. This cultural practice, intentional or otherwise, is part of the Axispoint psyche and those with the courage to be heard, have a tendency to thrive. 

Truth: Not everyone considers having an opinion worthwhile and some will argue that the negatives (and there are negatives) outweigh any perceived benefits. I find this concept amusing since having an opinion about the relative value of having an opinion requires that the opinion about opinions is valuable.

Truth: There are 6 different English definitions of Opinion provided by the online Oxford Dictionary. From those, the definition this article refers to is, 
 

“A view or judgment formed about something, not necessarily based on fact or knowledge.”


That’s right, we accept and even expect that people will present opinions “…not necessarily based on fact or knowledge” because having an opinion is a process as well as a destination.

Truth: Opinions, in our world, include ideas, thoughts, points of view and etc. They will all be treated the same.

Truth: To those that know me, some of the rules or guidelines presented in this series will smell strongly of hypocrisy. Admittedly, I struggle to follow the rules but that doesn’t make the rules less valid, it just provides additional (or at least some) evidence that I am human.

Why?

Being surrounded by a bunch of opinionated people that are encouraged to bloviate, sounds like a big hairy free-for-all. That normally doesn’t transpire since traits like respect, honesty, capability and thick skin tend to minimize the anarchy. There is a cost in time, effort and patience that come along with this style but for us, the benefits far outweigh the costs.

1. Training, Education, Experience.

We are consultants and our clients expect us to express opinions defined as:

“A formal statement of advice by an expert on a professional matter.”

Providing well structured, fully thought out and tactfully stated opinions require training and practice. Seeing the way others think and approach solving problems expands each individual’s thought processes and makes us all more aware, respectful and thorough. The world is full of rough edges and stressful situations so having a safer environment to discover which personal and group strategies provide control and positive outcomes prepares people for providing the proper types of input and guidance when dealing directly with our clients. By hearing and understanding other opinions and having to reconcile them with our own, we learn how to listen, ask questions and ultimately understand each other and our clients better.

2. More Options (or Exponential Bits of Genius).

Our clients have imposing barriers that need addressed whether it be time, money, technology, complex dependencies, politics or all of the above. The combination of barriers and their specifics vary by client/project. Plus, clients generally know their domain better than us and have their own highly capable people addressing the issue. So how is it possible that Axispoint provides our clients the necessary leverage to dispel these barriers? There are several reasons but the one relevant to this topic is “Exponential bits of Genius”.

For various reasons it is common that in a group of a several people there is one or maybe two that dominate the process of identifying a solution. Simple math quickly shows the fault in that process. Let’s say there is a a group of 6 people discussing a sticky problem. If each person has 2 uniquely valuable ideas and one person dominates then you get 2 ideas but if everyone contributes, then you get 12 ideas or 600% more ideas. 

600% more ideas sound pretty good, but in the right environment, where multiple people are empowered and capable of contributing, the difference is much greater because each idea has the possibility of reacting with every other idea to make a new uniquely valuable idea. Back to our example, the math is 2^6 or 64 options which is 3200% more bits of genius!

Yeah, I know this is human activity and the result will not really be linear to the number of people/ideas, but the point is still valid. A few opinionated people with a broad cross-section of capabilities and experience working together will provide significantly more options.

3. More Complete Solutions.

It is rare that a single person can think of the best idea and consider all the risks and nuances in any complex problem. It is common however, that different people will focus on different aspects of the same plan, or that they advocate a different plan because of specific risks or challenges obvious to them. Ultimately when multiple people offer various opinions, some way forward has to be selected and will favor some opinions over others. By taking the time to understand the supporting reasons (whether logic or experience) for each opinion, adjustments can be made to optimize the benefit behind some ideas and minimize the risks behind others even when these opinions aren’t primary to the vision driving the plan.

4. Coverage.

It is literally impossible for one person to keep up with the state of all computer technology. Axispoint builds custom software and we approach our projects from a standpoint of being technology agnostic. While we have favorite technologies and techniques that influence us, our agnosticism guarantees that we won’t reject a technology out of hand because it’s not our preferred or most understood path. It is common that prior to our involvement our clients have been advised that they need to scrap existing work and rebuild it using “X”. We believe the primary reason to support a recommendation like this often boils down to the familiarity or expertise a particular vendor/person has with “X” technology. Internally we refer to this as being their hammer as in the adage, “If your only tool is a hammer then every problem looks like a nail”. Unfortunately, what is really happening in some circumstances is that the problem is clearly not a nail and rather than find or learn a more proper tool, the problem is replaced with a nail so that the hammering can commence.

By fostering an environment where people are capable of expressing their opinion, we don’t have to rely on one or two people to keep up with technology. Instead we spread the load which makes for wider and deeper coverage and is easy for Axispoint to bring proper solutions to bear effectively.

5. Consistency.

Our clients typically want our help implementing some manner of differentiation and advantage based on innovation. Additionally, every project has multiple potential paths to success. In fact, some of our projects that appear the same have successfully and properly followed dramatically different paths. There is one thing that every client expects from us on every project…efficiency. A key method of achieving efficiency, is through consistency or

“The quality of achieving a level of performance which does not vary greatly in quality over time.”

Opinionated vocal people, different project/client constraints, technology agnostic, custom software…it sounds a little like a recipe for madness and that efficiency through consistency is unlikely. Admittedly there is no single formula that anyone can possibly apply in the described circumstances. Regardless, Axispoint achieves consistency along with the resultant benefits through a variety of mechanisms and patterns that are empowered by our combined capacity to have an opinion. People at Axispoint at all levels use their voice to identify and leverage patterns that are appropriate to the circumstances. These could be technology patterns, process patterns or some combination, they could be patterns we have learned internally or externally and they can vary in scale from micro-patterns to patterns that almost reach formulaic project solutions. An example of a tried and true pattern that is used in many of our projects is our Hybrid Offshore model.

6. Other.

In a nod towards brevity I will list additional benefits of cultivating opinions and for the moment leave most of the detail to the imagination of the reader.

  1. Good Mental Exercise.
  2. You have one anyway, might as well voice it.
  3. Prepare to Innovate.
    1. Every innovation begins with the phrase “I believe” and the understanding that there is risk in acting on that belief.
  4. Garner Support.
    “…I am obliged to say to the American [technologist], ‘This is why you ought to do this’ and then [s]he does it.” 
    1. There is a quote from Prussian General Friedrich Wilhelm von Steubon who helped train George Washington’s troops during the revolutionary war. The quote itself targets American’s but it seems to fit most technologists of today and I think it is relevant,
  5. In our business, if you can’t explain the “Why” of something it is hard to gain support.
  6. Validate future and on-going plans.
  7. Being Involved and Heard is Fulfilling.
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