Emotions in fancy dress

Fancy dressI published a post last week for the first time in ages.  In so doing, I stumbled across a graveyard of half-written posts (the kernel of an idea comes easily to me, making this relevant and coherent does not). I’ll see if I can finish a few more posts – here’s another. It starts with a quote:

“…opinions are bad things.

By opinions I do not mean ideas, and I do not mean thought. An opinion is rarely born of thought. Instead it arrives fully formed in a head. Opinions are…almost always emotion in fancy dress. They can be inherited, or they can spring from fears or desires, but they are never right.

Yet look how ferociously, how indefatigably, people cling to their opinions in the face of a flood of evidence that those opinions are at best questionable, and more likely mere dump fodder.

Look at the intransigent folly of so much politics. Look at the nonsense that passes for political debate….if you want to take part in this contest you are required to join a team and in order to join a team you have to have a packaged set of opinions.

Where do these opinions come from? Are they arrived at by rational analysis? If so, and if reason is reason, how come they differ? But opinions are not reasonable.

We are emotional creatures in an irrational world. Anyone who holds opinions is wrong and dangerous…The only comfortable seat for a thinking human being is a fence.

…and that’s my opinion.” (Joe Bennett1)

Joe’s article (from which the quote is pulled) brings a broad smile to my face. I absolutely love the penultimate line. In the societies that I have known (the UK, and to a lesser extent NZ) the phrase ‘sitting on the fence’ is often (i.e. normally) used as an insult – and yet this has always irritated me. I often find myself sitting on the proverbial fence…because I feel that I don’t know enough to pass judgement.

I don’t see this as a bad thing.  Whenever I find myself in a ‘fencing-sitting’ scenario, it suggests that:

  1. I shouldn’t be giving an opinion (no matter how hard I am pushed to do so)….since I clearly feel that I don’t know enough; and
  2. I could do with learning some more.

I see the ‘I’m fence-sitting’ circumstance as a useful realisation because, if I care about the issue in focus, then it should trigger me into putting some effort into ‘digging in’, to uncover facts, to appreciate perspectives, to see the bigger picture. In so doing, I am highly likely to move to a new (and more productive) place.

Merely having an opinion and sticking to it is likely to keep me anchored rigidly to the spot, as if stuck at the bottom of a deep lake in a pair of concrete boots.

A likely critique:

“But you’d never get anywhere Steve! You’d be forever stuck, like a broken record.”

I would suggest the opposite.

‘Not having opinions’ doesn’t have to mean staying meekly silent. Rather, it implies entering and sustaining an open-minded dialogue. This would require skillfully setting out:

  • what you think you know, and why;
  • what you are uncertain of, and why; and
  • what you understand as clear holes in your knowledge.

…and thus collaborating with others who can perhaps expand the group’s (never to be complete) jigsaw of knowledge.

Further, ‘not having opinions’ does not mean ‘not making decisions’. Rather, it means using facts to make decisions, and investing in the (hugely rewarding) effort of collecting facts before doing so.

If you feel that you don’t know, well go and find out some more!

We’d probably move away from ‘implementing ideologies’ (going fast to go slow) to ‘experimenting with hypotheses’ and making adjustments as we learn (going slow to go fast).

…but that’s just my opinion 😊.

On ‘going and find out more’

‘Finding out more’ doesn’t mean canvasing other people’s opinions or biasing your search for ‘evidence’ to that which supports your opinion. It means going to the ‘coal face’, observing reality (and the variation within), collecting the evidence for yourself and reflecting on what it is telling you.

A nice quote I heard the other day from a colleague:

“If you haven’t observed, you can’t talk”.

Now, that’s quite a bold and (perhaps blanket) statement, but there’s a rather important point within.

If we are not (yet) in a position to be able to observe (i.e. gain primary evidence) then I’d suggest that we should listen very carefully to those that have.


I recognise that this short post may be questioned by many, since opinions are (rightly or wrongly) a huge part of life.

I’ve written a number of earlier posts in this space and if you’d like to play with the idea further, here are a few to look at:


Take ‘Brexit’ as an example (the idea of Britain leaving the European Union).

Who’s got a strongly held opinion regarding Brexit? I’d suggest millions of people.

Who can (really) say that they fully understand what is being proposed and what will transpire? I’d suggest maybe a handful of ‘experts’…and even these will likely be wide of the mark.

…and with that thought, who will move onto the fence, to stop pushing their opinion and, instead, spend some real effort to further try to understand? Perhaps not so many.

‘Fence sitting’, at least while you are (meaningfully) learning, is a most excellent place to be.

Conversely, who’s dug into themselves, to think about the emotions that are answerable for driving their opinions? (Inherited from their parents? Created by their fears? Constructed from their cravings?…)

A reminder that Joe wrote that Opinions are…almost always emotion in fancy dress”.

What costume(s) are you (and I) wearing? Why?


1. Joe Bennett is a most excellent writer of short, insightful, challenging (usually contrarian) articles that are published weekly in our local newspaper (‘The Press’) here in Christchurch New Zealand. https://www.joebennett.nz/


Lions badgeFor those rugby fans among you – and virtually every New Zealander – the British and Irish Lions touched down in Auckland this afternoon.

They are here to play ten (daunting) games, including against all five NZ Super Rugby franchises and three All Black tests. I can hardly wait!

A Lions tour to NZ is special. It now only happens every twelve years….and the Lions have only ever won one series, way back in 1971. It’s going to be a tough gig.

I’ve recently been getting into the mood by listening to interviews with various Lions from past tours. Much of the material on offer understandably focuses on the last NZ tour, back in 2005 (when the Lions got well and truly thumped) and what went wrong….and how on earth can they win this time round.

One interview stood out to me – Matt Dawson with Sir Ian McGeechan1.

(I should explain, for those that don’t know, that ‘Geech’ is perhaps the most successful Lions Head Coach there has ever been).

Dawson was asking Geech about an incredibly tricky task – the process of selection (i.e. which players from the ‘squad of four nations’2 would get to play in a test).

GeechSir Ian explained that he would sit down with his team of coaches (perhaps five people) and work through all the analysis and then discuss, often for hours deep into the night. He provided this wonderful insight:

I’ve never voted in picking a test team, [I’ve] always talked it through until we get to what we want to see and are comfortable with.”

He doesn’t even mention that, as Head Coach, he had the power to force his views through (i.e. not even go to a vote)…because that’s not how he thinks.

I love the fact that (when he was the Head Coach) they never voted!

This fits really well with a few of my earlier posts:

Talk-back radio which has a dig at people using their opinions;

“What I think is…” which talks about moving from opinions to knowledge; and

Catch-ball which talks about moving from the (predictably) divisive process of ‘consultation’, to the inclusive process of ‘catch-ball’.

If you’re reading the above and you are a ‘tough’, ‘command and control’, ‘conventional wisdom’ type of person, then:

  • you may judge me (and Geech) to be weak; and
  • you may argue that talking it through would take forever to make any decisions.

Yes, it takes a great deal of effort to reach a consensus…but that’s the point – it requires you to actually invest in those around you, to listen to them, to test your own thinking, to draw out theirs, to connect, to understand, to appreciate, to grow…and to make monumentally better decisions, for the longer term, together, towards your shared purpose.


1. Sir Ian McGeechan (‘Geech’) is perhaps the most respected/revered/ loved Lion ever. He played for the Lions in 1974 and 1977 and then coached them in 1989, 1993, 1997 and then again in 2009.

He also coached the ‘mid-week massive’ during the 2005 tour of New Zealand whilst Sir Clive Woodward was Head Coach. Woodward (in my view) is a very different man to Geech.  Sir Clive ‘decided’ things, and often wouldn’t budge in spite of the advice being offered to him….which didn’t turn out too well.

2. The Lions are made up of the very best players from each of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland.

3. For long-term blog readers, you may recall from an earlier post that I would be torn as to which team I will be supporting. I have the good fortune to be going to the 3rd test in Auckland on 8th July with my oldest son, and with some great mates (thanks Jonesy!)

Let’s just say that I will be wearing red, and my son will be wearing black – which I think fits rather nicely with our past and our future.

4. As a bonus for reading this far 🙂 , here’s another nice ‘Geech’ quote to ponder regarding selecting the right people:

“It’s what’s happening off the ball that you watch….I spent as much time watching players off the ball as I did on the ball…Who’s putting themselves into the game? What’s happening off the ball? Who’s stepping up trying to make a difference when the team are under the cosh?”

Talk-back radio

talkback-radio-2So I’m driving home from work in my car and I turn the radio on.

Damn, it’s one of those talk-back radio shows. You know the ones: the radio presenter seeds the show with a couple of emotive topics that are bound to wind up some sections of the population (those ‘for’ and those ‘against’) such that they are goaded into ringing in to robustly ‘tell us their view’.

I’m just about to change radio station when my subconscious tells me “no Steve, you should try to listen for a while.” And so my hand drops away from the controls and I settle in.

Things start okay. The presenter puts forward a clear articulation of a topic that we would obviously care about and invites people to call in to ‘assist him with the (supposedly) important task of unravelling the greyness within’. He waits a bit for the phone lines to warm up and then, yee-haw, we are off!

He takes call after call. I’m starting to get wound up by them…I’m not totally sure why, but I persevere.

Until, finally, one of the callers opens up with the following revealing words…and yes, this is the very first thing that came out of the caller’s mouth:

“I don’t know much about it but what I think is….”

Wow, I thought, that phrase just about says it all: “I don’t know much about it, but what I think is…” If you don’t know much about it then what makes your thinking credible, let alone relevant?

A common talk-back topic is on some current and major court case, often involving a horrendous crime. People love to ring in to tell the host whether the accused is guilty and whether they should be hung, drawn and quartered…and I always want to stop the radio show, get on the phone and ask the caller:

Q: “Were you in court?” A: “Erm, no.”

Q: “Have you seen the evidence?” A: “No. I haven’t”

Q: “Have you read the full set of court transcripts?” A: “That’s also a no.”

Q: “Do you understand the necessary law/ science/ statistics? Or have you had this suitably explained to you?” A: “Mmm, not really…well actually, not at all.”

“…but I have listened to lots of opinions!”

There’s a reason for a court case taking time, with huge files of documents and a jury who have to take time out from their daily lives to listen for days on end. The victim, society and the accused need a proper decision based on the facts, not on opinions.

Unfortunately, a clamour of ill informed opinions cause people (like politicians) to take knee-jerk actions that may very well do more harm than good.

Spot the link:

“Okay, Steve, interesting (sort of)…but what’s this got to do with our organisation and improving it?”

Well, there are two aspects to this…and both come back to getting knowledge and avoiding opinions. That’s the link. So here goes:


If you want to understand a system (let’s say a process) you have to study it – in detail and over time. If you are asked a question about it, you should only answer if you know….and if you don’t (which is absolutely fine), well you had better get back to the Gemba* and look some more….but please don’t guess, or rely on what you think might be the answer based on hearsay.

(* Japanese word meaning the place where the work is done)

And, to be clear, this ‘getting knowledge’ thing is a very natural iterative process. You think you know – you find out that you don’t – so you learn more…meaning that, again, you think you know…and on and on. This means that you continually understand your system at a deeper and deeper level and are more able to meaningfully and continuously improve it.

Ask yourselves this: How many times have you been in a meeting/ workshop, a question has been asked and either you or someone else has replied “I believe/ think the answer is…” and the meeting carries on under the assumption that this is correct?

Well, in my experience, this ‘answering with an opinion’ happens all the time.

But, stop, what damage could this be doing? This is a classic case of ‘going fast to go slow’ rather than ‘going slow to go fast’.

Example coaching conversation:

Improver:     “…so then the agent does [xyz] with it”

Coach:     “How do you know this?”

Improver:     “I’m pretty sure that this is what happens, based on talking to a few people about it.”

Coach:     “Have you seen the agent doing this?”

Improver:     “Well, no, but it makes sense that this is what they do with it.

Coach:    “This could be what happens but it would a good idea if you observed this yourself. Then, you can understand if this is correct, can see if there is actually more to it, and can gain an understanding of ‘why’ it’s like this.”

.….next meeting:

Improver:    “I watched what they actually do and I talked to them about it…and, erm, in fact they throw it in the bin because….”

As you can see from this example it was far more important to stop the conversation and go to the Gemba to truly learn than it was to ‘use a plausible answer’ to complete the conversation.

What would be even better than stopping a workshop to go and find out? Don’t start with a workshop! Start at the Gemba and ask questions whilst you are there…and when you come away and think about it and have some more questions…well, go back.

Taiichi Ohno was renowned for his method of developing managers. He would have them regularly stand at the production line (you may have heard of his ‘chalk circles’) and observe it. He would then come along and ask them what they had learned…and he would likely walk away if they simply came up with opinions.


Okay, on to the 2nd and highly related point.

So you are in a workshop; a discussion has been had; there isn’t a clear way forward but there appear to be options on the table…so the meeting chair says “let’s vote on it.”

Now, there are quite a few voting ‘tools’ out there that help you carry out the desired task of voting* and therefore this becomes a very easy (and even, dare I say, rousing) activity to perform. Some of you might be familiar with them (such as ‘fist to five’ or ‘multi-voting’).

But if the question requires knowledge to be answered, voting is NOT appropriate.

“If the [necessary] knowledge is not common, it is very hard to do the right thing, especially as, in any consensus-building exercise, knowledge has no greater weight than opinion.” (John Seddon)

i.e. the trouble with voting is that knowledge and opinion appear to be equal. This is clearly madness. Imagine one person has knowledge and nine merely have their opinions – what chance has the knowledge got? Rather than voting, the need is to take the time to find out who (if anyone) has knowledge and listen to them.

Note: Voting can also work against variety, aiming at ‘an answer’ rather than realising that, perhaps, there should be many (see A Service Revolution).

Right, voting warning given…so when is voting okay? Well, if you want a group to democratically decide something and such democracy is relevant (“should we stop for a break now or later” or “is the room temperature okay”) then, great, use a voting tool.

(* Voting is a great example of where a tool can be easily misused. You should understand what a tool is for and whether it is applicable for your situation before you pick it up. Should you use a saw to hammer in a nail? And if you do, what damage might you do and what might the quality of the outcome be?)

In summary:

I suppose that it would be pretty rare for you to hear someone at work actually say “I don’t know much about it but what I think is….” but is this often the underlying truth?


  • Try not to rely on opinions yourself: Always go (back) to the Gemba and find out the facts;
  • If you hear others doing it: Politely ask them some pertinent questions about how they arrived at their opinion…you can skilfully move them to want to find out the actual facts for themselves.

And finally:

  • By all means vote on whether the group is going to, say, have a toilet break but, for anything more than this, please seek out, recognise and suitably respect the difference between knowledge and opinion.

“The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance; it is the illusion of knowledge.” (Daniel J. Boorstin)

Does anyone else get wound up by Talk-back radio….or is this what it’s actually for 🙂