Opinions vs Decision Rights

For context: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dunning–Kruger_effect:

The Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias manifesting in two principal ways: unskilled individuals tend to suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly rating their ability much higher than is accurate, while highly skilled individuals tend to rate their ability lower than is accurate. In unskilled individuals, this bias is attributed to a metacognitive inability of the unskilled to recognize their ineptitude. Skilled individuals tend to underestimate their relative competence, erroneously assuming that tasks which are easy for them are also easy for others.

“the miscalibration of the incompetent stems from an error about the self, whereas the miscalibration of the highly competent stems from an error about others”.

Two camps

For reasons I don’t fully understand, the digital disciplines are frequently entangled in opposition and debate from a variety of quarters. Whether agency or in-house, whether designer, researcher, developer or other, I’m confident in my assertion that tech-pioneers will often find yourselves battling with managers, colleagues or clients, whose opinions will baffle and confound.

If it stopped there, there’d be no reason to worry. But, when opinion is backed by authority, and runs counter to contemporary digital thinking, things can get a little bent out of shape. I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that sometimes; managers possess uninformed opinions. For clarification, I’m not conflating “uninformed” with low intellectual capacity nor am I being pejorative.

Often, Managers will represent the “Normal Majority” (NM). And often they oppose a specialised group of people called Digital Natives (DN).

It need not be a siege though. A useful mix of diplomacy, education and business oriented reasoning should enable Digital Natives to assist the organisation to make wise decisions.

What’s the problem?

The NM has been around a long time. The hierarchies of most organisations tend to NM, and they cannot resist their natural tendancy to want to manage (read interfere). Meanwhile, seen through the NM lens, DN seem to be a dangerous, wild-west, out-of-control, let’s-try-stuff, happy-clappy, beardy-weirdy kinda-people. There’s no way, those DN-types can be seen as a safe pair of hands! They need constraining with a “when I want your opinion, I’ll give it to you” approach.

NM wins, it’s a more populous territory, it has its people on all executive boards, and DN finds itself working for NM. Well, that’s OK. There’s a natural order there and that can be respected for now.

A defining difference between managers and leaders is in their approach. Leaders are clear about decision rights and they make these boundaries clear to others. Managers are less clear, and wilfully meddle in the work of experts. A leader will state the objectives of a task, leaving the experts to find solutions. A manager will say what they want done and by when and may even go as far as mandating how a task should be undertaken.

Whose opinion counts?

All opinion is valuable. Without it, we’d find discerning the difference between OK and Rubbish a little tricky. The question is, whose opinion counts? Or is everyone’s opinion, regardless of expertise equal? Is my opinion about rocket science as valid as Wernher von Braun’s? Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, building a digital thing isn’t rocket science, but it isn’t trivial either.

So far we have 2 camps and 2 executive types. Normal Majority (NM), Digital Native (DN), Leader (L), Manager (M). This gives us 4 executive possibilities: DN-L, DN-M, NM-L, NM-M.

Scenario 1

You’re a Digital Native and work with like minded colleagues. Your leader is a NM-M, someone who has little time, interest or understanding in what s/he considers to be minutiae. What happens in this scenario? Long-term plans — the kind you need for any reasonably sized digital-development to be successful — are swapped for short-term box-ticking exercises. Uninteresting technical details fall on deaf ears. “Done” is decided by the finger tapping NM-M, impatient with “blah blah blah excuses”, s/he believes you can be replaced by an outsource agreement at the drop of a hat.

Scenario 2

DN reports to a NM-L. She’s the CMO and respects the opinions of experts and the boundaries of decision-rights. If her Development Manager says it will take 3 more sprints, she may ask to review the scope, but will give-way to expert opinion. She may seek the opinions of colleagues on design for example, but wouldn’t allow a colleague to make sweeping changes on a whim of personal preference. A leader, regardless of Digital understanding, will not allow political pressure to trump expert opinion. She knows not all opinion is equal.

Uti possidetis

If you work in an internal team, regardless of the camp you’re in, or turf you park your tank on, that “territory” is ALL owned by the organisation that employs you. Opinions about Digital developments are all good, in fact, participation across the board is vital if they’re to be successful. However, when debates escalate to wars and rank is pulled, the organisation loses with an own goal. By respecting all opinions but weighting them according to domain expertise, and by establishing decision boundaries, only then can the wrecking be halted and the building begin.

The battle is with the competition, not between departments. And the camps? Well, they’re friendly neighbours, in an ideal world, and there’s not a Dunning Kruger in sight!