Category Archives: Thoughts
It’s forty degrees out and there’s a guy standing in front of the office building, shivering, indulging in his nicotine addiction. I can’t possibly empathize with what he’s thinking or feeling.
As I walk down the street, I pass an elderly woman in an electric wheelchair. Again, I have no idea what it is to be her.
And there, whipping around the corner in a fancy car, is an industrialist I recognize, someone with more employees, power and money than most of us would know what to do with.
It’s easy to lump people together into categories, easier still to say, “I know how you feel.” But we don’t, we can’t, and given the choice, people will choose to be the people they wish to be.
Malcolm Gladwell of bestselling Tipping Point and Outliers fame proposed a delightfully provocative way to begin his onstage debate with Sports Gene author David Epstein about whether practice or genetics is the better guarantor of professional success. But instead of launching directly into argument, said Gladwell, they’d start by summarizing their opponent’s best arguments. The exceedingly careful, precise and thoughtful characterizations of each other’s position that followed proved remarkably entertaining and informative. More importantly, it facilitated one of the best-reviewed and most absorbing panels at MIT Sloan’s highly-regarded Sports Analytics Conference.
Gladwell’s gimmick of forcing people to fairly communicate their rival’s case is rhetorical old hat. But the rise of Big Data and analytics concomitantly demand its operational resurrection and revival. The need is urgent and global. If there’s a single pathological behavior I consistently see undermining the real and potential value of data and analytics, it’s the rampant intellectual dishonestly and argument I hear in project reviews and board rooms worldwide. Deliberate misrepresentations, mischaracterizations and ad absurdum distortions of fact and interpretation are more common than rare. Passion and commitment are “go-to” executive excuses for grotesque exaggeration and dishonest summary of inter-organizational opposition. Powerpoint presentations become poisonous invitations to quantitative brawls. The dominant metric of analytic effectiveness is “winning the argument” rather than creating any kind of meaningful or measurable insight. Does this represent a serious failure of leadership? You bet. But that’s numeracy’s new normal. It’s why Gladwell’s gimmick so successfully stimulated the MIT sports crowd of geeks, nerds and quants.
The cure is simple and compelling: Managers and executives confronting serious strategic, operational or cultural disagreements on issues that matter should insist that their people be able to convincingly make their opponents’ case. This is not a joke, a gimmick or an intellectual exercise. It’s a public declaration of integrity: Fairly presenting a 360-degree view — both sides of a polarizing argument or wedge issue — is essential to honest and honorable discussion. The best and only way you can be confident your evidence and arguments are understood is by hearing them fairly and accurately made by the very people who disagree with them. That doesn’t mean that they’re persuaded or convinced by them. But it typically guarantees that there’s been a serious investment made in grasping them. Conversely, the best and surest way to demonstrate your own command of the debate is by offering a synthesis and summary of your rival’s case in a manner that leaves them nodding in agreement. There is no shortcut or substitute for that mutual recognition.