I’d suggest that every day in our working (and home) lives we are asked for our opinion on something. In fact, such a situation probably occurs dozens of times every single day.
Let’s drill down into a single instance and consider the basic pattern of dialogue: we listen to someone state, and maybe explain, their thinking with regards to what they deem to be a problematic situation (explained below) and then we start an immediate response with words like “I think that…”. Worse, we may state our ‘thinking’ (perspective) as fact and we may mistake our feelings as rational logic.
I have a constant battle with myself to avoid, pull back from, or recognise my fall into this vast pit.
A sideways look at ‘everyday life’:
Peter Checkland, in his ‘Soft Systems Methodology’ (SSM), came up with a rather nice device that assists – the idea of ‘problematic situations’.
“As a member of the human tribe we experience everyday life as being quite exceptionally complex. We feel ourselves to be carried along in an onrushing turbulent stream, a flux of happenings, ideas, emotions, actions, all mediated through the slippery agency of language, all continually changing.
Our response to our immersion in this stream is not simply to experience it. Beyond that, we have an innate desire to try to see it, if we can, as meaningful. We attribute meaning to it – the ability to do this being one of the characteristics which marks us out as human.
Part of this meaning attribution is to see chunks of the ongoing flux as ‘situations’. Nothing is intrinsically ‘a situation’; it is our perceptions which create them as such, and in doing that we know that they are not static; their boundaries and their contents will change over time.
Some of the situations we perceive, because they affect us in some way, cause us to feel a need to tackle them, to do something about them, to improve them.” Thus we perceive such situations as ‘problematic’ i.e. something to intervene in.
This neatly dovetails with my last post in respect of Ackoff and messes vs. abstract problems. Just as Ackoff didn’t like the simplistic word ‘problem’, neither does Checkland. …and for the same reason: ‘problem’ implies ‘solution’ but, as he puts it, “real life is more complex than that!”
Back to that opinion we have been asked for
How do we arrive at our thinking? Do we have enough knowledge to justify a response?
Here’s another useful passage from Checkland:
“In human conversation, each of the persons involved influences others and is also influenced by them. Out of this two-way process comes what the participants are creating as their notion of changing ‘reality’. These acts of creating reality are never complete, and so have to be examined as only a part of a never-ending process.”
i.e. Any response we provide isn’t, and cannot be, ‘concrete’*. We have, and will always have, much to learn. Of course, it’s absolutely the case that our mindset (and where it sits on the ‘fixed – growth’ spectrum) will determine in which direction(s) and how far our thinking will travel during, and following human interactions.
(*yet, in many situations, we are easily satisfied with superficial response(s) and make key decisions based upon them)
I’d like to propose a few ‘alterations’ to our language to more accurately express the reality whenever we offer our opinion. How about we start our replies with:
“what I currently think is…”; or even better
“what’s just popped into my head as a response is…”
Because, let’s be honest – we weren’t thinking about it 5 minutes before we were asked and we have press-ganged our brain into providing a timely reply. Further, our ‘answer’ isn’t exactly complete. It’s just an initial train of thought based on what we have been exposed to, and heavily weighted by its recency.
Even thinking about adjusting our replies to being less certain is likely to help us contemplate what we actually know to respond.
I could be flippant here and say that, if you ask me what I think, I should reply that I don’t know yet – ask me on my death bed…because that’s when I will have finished* assimilating all the information available to me. (* though likely, I presume, not by my choice)
Rather than taking this unhelpful line of reasoning…let’s look at what lies within:
Knowledge, not opinions
i.e. the idea that I need to take my time, gain (and therefore seek out) experience, understand the facts and expose differing perspectives before I provide a hypothetically useful reply.
So, even better than the “what I currently think is…” response would be to clearly explain the basis, extent (and therefore limitations) of our experiences in respect of the topic in play…so that we and the listener can appreciate why we currently think as we do…and our listener is encouraged to reflect in the same manner. Gosh, we might end up educating each other!
“Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance” (Confucius)
In a work scenario our response should often simply be:
“I don’t have the facts to make a valuable response…but I can do something about that…I’ll get straight to the gemba!”
…and if we do this, we will collect the facts, appreciate the environment in which they arise, and understand other perspectives…leading to meaningful change, towards purpose.
…which is an excellent link to three previous posts:
…and I’ve also set myself up for a follow-up post on the ‘soft systems thinking’ topic of ‘Worldviews’. Here’s a teaser to end with:
“The systems approach begins when first you see the world through the eyes of another. [It] goes on to discover that every world-view is terribly restricted. There are no experts in the systems approach.” (C. West Churchman)