The Golden Rule
Written by Travis R. Rogers, Director of Software Engineering for Axispoint
This is the second part of a 3-part series about the art of the opinion. Have and Opinion – Part 1 provides some definition and justification for this method while this article provides a basic set of rules for having an opinion. I encourage you to read all of Part 1 but in case you are just interested in the rules I have copied some particularly relevant caveats and provisos into this article.
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.
The Golden Rule
If you think you know the answer, then say it!
Let me set the stage:
1. A problem presents itself.
2. A meeting is held to discuss the problem.
3. A decision is made.
4. Investment is made towards that decision.
5. A person that participated in the meeting says, “You know, when we were discussing this the other day I thought that…” and out of their mouth comes something they didn’t previously present which turns out to be:
a. An important point that would have changed the decision.
b. Or a better solution to the problem.
Having an opinion, especially one that is firmly held, and not speaking it in a timely manner is highly frowned upon. This is sometimes referred to as “the biggest sin” within our design process.
The Rest of the Rules
Having and opinion could be considered a form of brainstorming but it’s more than just spouting out whatever is on the top of your mind and some basic expectations need to be understood and managed in order to get the most value.
1. You must be able to honestly assess the value of your own opinion.
This rule allows for the creativity of traditional brainstorming via the portion of the definition that says “..not necessarily based on fact or knowledge.” But, it requires honesty. If you have an opinion that is purely based on gut feel or just an idea that you want to put out there then fire away, but preface it with that information. This way everyone is clear on how to approach the opinion. For example:
Bob: “I strongly believe that we should do X.”
Jan: “Three months ago I worked on a project that had this same set of circumstances. We were unsure what to do so we tested X, Y and Z. Z was the best option because it achieved the goal with the lowest effort.”
Jon: “I have an idea that hasn’t been mentioned but I don’t really have any experience with it, what do you think of F?”
Ann: “I don’t have this specific experience but 20 years of doing this type of work leads me to believe that Y is the best option for these 3 reasons…”
Bob is highly respected and very capable but we initially have no way of knowing how he came to his opinion and how valuable it is therefore it will be challenged (as will/should all the opinions above). As it turns out, it was just an opinion with no facts or specific knowledge to back it up. It also turns out that upon being challenged Bob asked Jan for more detail about her experience, the group identified an inconsistency between the current problem and Jan’s problem of which Jan was not aware. It was eventually decided that X was actually the right path forward for various reasons, the very least of which was Bob’s initial comment.
2. You must be able to properly express your opinion.
This is a very simple set of guidelines, but are probably the hardest to maintain. The first is to be nice. Don’t raise your voice. Don’t call names (passively or directly). Don’t pound on tables or white boards. Don’t pull rank to shut people up. Don’t talk over others. Etc. ad nauseum.
The second is to be forgiving. Stating an opinion that you know will be challenged by people whose respect you desire is a significant personal risk and eventually someone will raise their voice and/or etc and, within bounds, each of us should be allowed a pass.
3. You must be able to listen to other’s opinions.
Stop reading email. Stop looking at your phone. Stop thinking of your next argument and listen. Listen not for why someone else is wrong but for what they are right about and why they think they have a point. Actively search for the value that is inevitably there. It is each persons responsibility during these conversations to find and piece together the bits of genius.
If you are unable to listen mentally for a some reason (bullheadedness?) then give yourself some time away from the meeting to reflect on what you heard and then search for the value. This is critically important and often difficult for myself and others of my opinionated ilk so I often refuse to finalize a decision at a first meeting instead we “sleep on it”. Not only does this provide separation from the stresses of the conversation but also allows the subconscious to process everything that was said. Uncountable times I have walked from a meeting thinking someone was absolutely wrong only to realize later that there was a little bit (or a lot) of genius in the opinion that I had mentally and emotionally blocked.
4. You must be able to listen to other’s opinions about your opinion.
If you give an opinion in a room full of opinionated people, you will be challenged. Gird yourself and then refer back to #2 and #3.
5. You must be able to solicit opinions from others.
A key indicator that someone is not listening is when they are not asking questions. Ask questions, present scenarios, draw diagrams, act things out…whatever. All this in an effort to get information from others instead of making your point. You are not the smartest person in the room and even if you are, someone else in the room has thought of something you haven’t.
6. You must have the ability to change your mind.
It’s that simple, if you can’t change your mind then you don’t have an opinion. You have a fact in your head, in the realm of “The earth is the center of the universe and if you say otherwise then you’ll be placed on house arrest forever.”
It is ok, to present and defend your opinion with confidence and vigor but once you reach the point you believe you are absolutely right about a complex plan/topic then you are failing the group and wasting everyone’s time.
7. You must have the ability to accept a path forward that does not coincide with your opinion.
Debate and discussion cannot go on forever and consensus may never be reached or be valuable. Someone will eventually say “I heard and understood and this is the way we are going” and that way won’t always match your opinion. Simply put, that hurts, but it is a waste of time and energy to constantly rehash old battles or say “I told you so”. This sabotages the process of future problem solving, wastes time and is generally petty. If you want to have a voice than you have to learn to maturely deal with the emotional ding of not getting your way.
8. You must be able to engage in positive verbal conflict.
Open debate or conversation is a form of conflict but it doesn’t have to be negative. Maybe this is a restatement of several rules above but it is worth saying. Negative people have valid and valuable opinions. Negative events (discussions and etc.) might identify valuable plans/solutions, but negative conflict has a limited life. Positive conflict can perpetuate and get better. Conflict is inevitable and always has some value. Positive conflict is invaluable.
9. You must be able to walk away.
If you like being heard and like solving problems most of the time you will walk away from presenting your opinion invigorated and excited even if you didn’t get exactly your way. Regardless of how stubborn I am, if my opinion provides no value but someone else or a group finds an elegant solution to a problem I am elated. But there will be times when you are hurt a little by the process. When that happens…compartmentalize, apply the Vegas principle or whatever but leave it at the door. Remember that these are your friends and colleagues which you spend a large amount of time with and work is fun when you get along…one conversation is not worth a lost friendship.
10. You must be able to apologize.
Recently, I had an opinion about the way something was done and I let it fly. A while later I realized that I had not read something correctly and also had broken several of the rules above (especially #2). Unfortunately, I had emailed my opinion and cc’d people so of course I had to email an apology and include with all the same people…that’s only fair. If you want a voice it will not always make you proud so be prepared to use that same voice to make amends within the same context and grandiosity as you err.
The biggest sin is having an idea/opinion/answer and not speaking out but there are a few other rules that keep an opinionated environment from becoming chaos. The 1st segment of this series discuss the virtues of nurturing opinions and the last describes some of they key traits of people that thrive when they opine.