Opinions and Organizational Theory

“It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”
Mark Twain

Good opinions are a lot of work.

When I think about the world in which we live and the organizations in which we work, I can’t help but think that few people have the intellectual honesty, time, and discipline required to hold a view.

We have a bias for action and, equally important, a bias for the appearance of knowledge.

When’s the last time you heard someone say I don’t know?

It seems the higher up the corporate ladder you go, the more unlikely you are to say or hear those three words.

No one wants to tell the boss they don’t know and the boss certainly doesn’t want to let on that they don’t know either. We have too much of our self-worth wrapped up in our profession.

If you’re a knowledge worker and you walk around saying “I don’t know” people are going to start to think you’re pretty stupid.

So we talk in abstractions and fog and create the appearance of knowledge.

Who has time to do the work required to hold an opinion? There is always an email to respond to, an urgent request from your boss, paper to move from one side of your desk to the other, etc. So we don’t do the work. But so few others do the work either.

Perhaps an example will help.

At 4:45 pm you receive a 4 page proposal in your inbox. The proposal is to be decided on the next day at a meeting with 12 people.

To reflect on the proposal seriously, you’d have to stay at work late. You’d need to turn off the email and all of your other tasks to read a document from start to finish. And, after-all, who has time to read four pages these days? (So we skim.)

If we really wanted to do the work necessary to hold an opinion we’d have to: read the document from start to finish; talk to anyone you can find about the proposal; listen to arguments from others for and against it; verify the facts; consider our assumptions; talk to someone who has been through something similar before; verify the framing of the problem is not too narrow or wide; make sure the solution solves the problem; etc.

So we don’t do the work. Yet we need an opinion for the meeting, or, perhaps more accurately, a sound-byte. So we skim the document again looking for something we can support; something that shows we’ve thought about it, despite the fact we haven’t.

We spend the time we should be learning and understanding something running around trying to make it look like we know everything. We’re doing work alright: busywork. We do what’s easy.

We turn up at the meeting the next day to discuss the proposal but our only real goal is to find a brief pause in the conversation so we can insert our pre-scripted, fact-deficient, obfuscating generality into the conversation. We do, after-all, have to maintain appearances.

The proposal ultimately reaches consensus, but this was never really in doubt. If you flip this around for a second, it must be the easiest decision in the world. Think about it, here you have a room full of smart people all in agreement on the best way to proceed. How often does that happen? A no-brainer like that is hardly worth a memo or even a meeting.

It’s easy to agree when no one is thinking.

And organizational incentives encourage this behavior.

If the group makes the right decision you can take take credit. And, if by chance things go wrong, you don’t get the blame. Group decisions, especially ones with consensus, allow for all of the participants to have the upside and few if any to have the downside.

When groups make decisions based on consensus, no one is really accountable if things go bad. Everyone can weasel out of responsibility (diffusion of responsibility.)

When you’re talking to someone familiar with the situation you might say something like, ‘we were all wrong’ or ‘we all thought the same thing.’

When you’re talking to someone unfamiliar with the situation you’d offer something more clever like ‘I thought that decision was wrong but no one would listen to me,’ knowing full well they can’t prove you wrong.

And just like that, one-by-one, everyone in attendance at the meeting is absolved.

The alternative is uncomfortable.

Say, rather than jetting off to pick up the kids at 5 you stay and do the work required to have an opinion. While you get home around 11, exhausted, you are now comfortable with a well thought out opinion on the proposal.

Maybe two things happen at this point. If you’ve done the work and you reached the same conclusion at the proposal, you feel like you just wasted 6 hours. If, however, you do the work and you reach a different conclusion, things get more interesting.

You show up at the meeting and mention that you thought about this and reached a different conclusion — In fact, you determine this proposal doesn’t solve the problem. It’s nothing more than lipstick.

So you speak up. And in the process, you risk being labelled as a dissenting troublemaker. Why, because no one else has done the work.

You might even offer some logical flow for everyone to follow along with your thinking. So you say something along the lines of: “I think a little differently on this. Here is how I see the problem and here are what I think are the governing variables. And here is how I weighed them. And here is how I’d address the main arguments I see against this. … What I’d miss?”

In short you’d expose your thinking and open yourself up. You’d be vulnerable to people who haven’t really done the work.

If you expect them to say OK, that sounds good, you’d be wrong. After all, if they’re so easy swayed by your rational thinking, it looks like they haven’t done the work.

Instead, they need to show they’ve already thought about your reasoning and arguments and formed a different opinion.

Rather than stick to facts, they might respond with hard to pin down jargon or corporate speak — facts will rarely surface in a rebuttal.

You’ll hear something like “that doesn’t account for the synergies” or “that doesn’t line up with the strategic plan (you haven’t seen).” Or maybe they point the finger at their boss who is not in the room: “That’s what I thought too but Doug, oh no, he wants it done this way.”

The only way to argue that, and actually have a conversation, is to ask what the anticipated synergies are or to talk about the plan in detail, or bring Doug into the room. But that’s a dangerous game akin to telling the emperor he has no clothes.

If you push too far you won’t be at the next meeting because everyone knows you’ll do the work and that means they know that by inviting you they’ll be forced to think about things a little more, to anticipate arguments, etc. In short, inviting you means more work for them. It’s nothing personal.