Random Acts of Architecture

Wisdom for the IT professional, focusing on chaos that is IT systems and architecture.

Separating the Wheat from the Chaff: Unpacking Professional Opinions

Fueled by the advent of social media, opinions now surround us. Seemingly everyone has them and broadcasts them to the broader world. Untethered from context and expertise, such expression usually leads to validation or ridicule instead of healthy debate. Uncritical opinion sharing can drive tribalism, becoming a foundation of identity as adherents one-up each other with more extreme views.

Professional environments face different challenges with opinions. They are smaller and simpler than worldwide social media and rarely emphasize extremes. However, organizations frequently need to make quick decisions on incomplete or uncertain information. For example, to solicit feedback on a proposal or design.

Opinion gathering can be a helpful tool. Requesting opinions can reveal similar initiatives, valuable metrics and new perspectives. It can also extract contradictory, irrelevant, ill-informed or otherwise not valuable input from the wrong people.

Effective opinion gathering requires preparation then focusing on relevant motivation, experience and facts.

Preparation involves asking the questions you should ask before seeking feedback.

Creating and sharing a succinct document or presentation clarifies the problem, sets its scope and answers common questions. It gets better quality opinions sooner.

Defining the audience ensures the audience is complete and not excessive. It also helps set an end to opinion gathering.

Preparation should be proportional. Not every issue needs documentation and a plan. However, taking a few moments to think is almost always beneficial.

Unfortunately, opinions are sometimes unsolicited or not on topical problems. On topic opinions may be outside the scope or imply impractical changes.

While perfect alignment is rare, the most useful and actionable opinions come from those with benign motivations. Opinions from those with different views or incentives need careful consideration.

For example, salespeople are often commission-motivated. They are likely to favour whatever gets them their next sale. However, they also have frequent close contact with customers, giving unique insights.

In IT, non-technical stakeholders are not accountable for warranty (e.g. speed, security, reliability, maintainability), only for utility (e.g. correctness, completeness). They will often neglect or downplay quality issues. However, they may also represent a broader or long term view than just the immediate technical details.

Stakeholders may have conflicting motivations. Managers have to weigh short-term targets against long-term goals. The decision-fatigued or overworked may suggest the easiest path over the best one.

Even well-intentioned opinions can be problematic. For example, aspiring experts may give unsolicited ideas, trying to appear knowledgeable in the guise of assistance. Some merely repeat others’ opinions they found compelling. Confidence and credibility are different things.

Potentially the most dangerous opinions are those with an unknown motivation. Actual dishonesty is rare in professional settings. However, self-promotion and self-preservation evolve from helpful to essential as you climb the management ladder.

The opinion giver’s experience is also significant. It prevents foreseeable mistakes and imparts acquired wisdom.

However, there is relevant and less relevant experience. “The last time we did this” may have been under different market conditions, finances or staff.

Experience does not imply expertise. Seemingly capable people may have knowledge gaps, poor tools or incomplete awareness.

People may not adapt or improve, repeating poor practices or old mistakes. Sometimes years of experience are just repeating the same experience.

Like motivation and experience, saying facts are pertinent is an understatement. These include measurements, dates, budgets, quotes and anything that most agree is hard to dispute. They are more effective at forming or changing opinions in professional settings than on social media.

Often the source’s trustworthiness is the most crucial factor in disputes. However, referencing “The Lean Startup” by Eric Ries, anything auditable, actionable, and accessible should be convincing.

Facts should be complete and, like experience, relevant. Statistics or definitions can ignore inconvenient data. Averages imply an often inaccurate or oversimplified modal distribution.

Fact-producing experiments are generally more effective than expertise. They consider local conditions and capabilities. Repeatable experiments are even better because they can become goals to achieve or metrics to track success or failure.

Changing your organization or peers to give better opinions is challenging, particularly given the self-entitlement enabling social media that surrounds us.

However, you can change the way you give and receive opinions. While everyone is entitled to opinions, not all opinions are equal. Thinking critically about those given and received helps professionally and in the broader world.

Image from https://www.thebluediamondgallery.com/handwriting/o/opinion.html. By Nick YoungsonCC BY-SA 3.0 from Alpha Stock Images.

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