There is nothing more beautiful or more powerful than coming together to solve a problem. When we get frustrated, infuriated or slightly homicidal during a meeting, it is because something is getting in the way of solving the problem at hand. Ironically, the worst resource for solving a problem is also that which is most abundant: opinions. Opinions represent our worst collaborative habits. Habits which, if we can learn to break, will greatly increase our collective productivity.
Anatomy of a Problem
A problem exists in the absence of understanding. Problems cause us pain. If we understood them, we would have already solved them. If we have not solved a problem, we must not understand it.
“But wait!” you say, “I know what my problem is!” That may be, but knowing about something does not mean you understand it. I know my head hurts, but I probably don’t really understand the biology behind my headache. If I did understand the biology behind my headache, I would be able to take action to avoid it or stop it. If you have a lingering problem, it is because you may be aware of it, but you don’t understand it.
When we meet together to solve a problem, the only productive goal of the meeting is to first completely understand a problem, then devise steps to address it. Of course, many of us miss even this first step, making our meetings about passing around blame for a problem, denying the problem or complaining about a problem. Opinions live and thrive in all these alternative agendas, but we are going to focus on the less obvious problem with opinions.
So the first step of solving a problem is agreeing that we must first try to understand it. Most people who get to this phase feel pretty good about themselves and their maturity level. Indeed, coming together to understand a problem is a great first step. However, opinions still worm their way into our civil conversation and mess things up.
Anatomy of an Opinion
“There are no bad ideas” seems like a good declaration to create an open environment for discussion, and it is mostly true. The problem is that opinions and ideas are not the same thing. An idea is an open-ended piece of inspiration, and an opinion is a closed declaration.
On the journey towards forming an understanding, there are very productive things to gather: facts, experience, insight and perspectives. We need each other to collect enough information to form an understanding of a problem. We each have different perspectives and offer different information.
A perspective says, “From my point of view, I see this.” An opinion says, “I declare my point of view is reality.” A perspective is a helpful contribution to add another piece to the puzzle of reality; an opinion assumes it already knows reality. Most opinions are nothing more than perspectives offered up as fact.
Opinions would seek to end the journey to understanding. Worse, they create emotional confusion and wear us down during collaboration. When someone offers their perspective, it is offered with an emotional expectation to be listened to. When someone offers their opinion, it is presented with an emotional obligation to be accepted. A person’s perspective can be added to without insult, but an opinion is contradicted and usually taken with offense.
The Three Architects
Three architects are called together by the mayor to design a house upon a hill in the middle of a village. Each architect lives on a different side of the hill. One side slopes down, one side is flat and one side overlooks a waterfall. Each architect, arrogant of their talents, insists the house be designed to accommodate the hill as they know it.
The mayor gets tired of their arguing and has each draw straws to determine the order each may try and build their house. One after another they each build their version of the house, and each one collapses and is completely unstable. Finally the mayor gives up, “I can’t believe our three best architects can’t build a house on a hill.”
The village idiot finds the discarded plans of the three architects. He laughs to himself as he cuts up the three plans and tapes them together according to each side of the hill. He comes before the mayor and says he can build the greatest house the village has ever seen. The mayor is skeptical but agrees simply to humiliate the architects.
The house is built, and to the wonder of all, is beautiful, stable and completely innovative to take full advantage of each part of the hill. The mayor decides to make it his own home and holds a festival in honor of the idiot, forcing the architects to host the festival in his honor.
Powerful Problem Solving
If understanding is a thousand dollar bill, then insight is a hundred, perspective is a five'r, and opinion is a penny. We need different perspectives to gain insight, and we gather insight until we have understanding. Opinions are both intellectually and emotionally distracting. The more we learn to eliminate opinions, the more effectively we work together.
If we are honest with ourselves, we can see that we use opinions to try to look smart, establish dominance or feel important, but never really to solve a problem. Our perspectives can be useful; our insights are valuable; and understanding qualifies us as paid consultants. But our two cents is probably not even worth the penny we were paid for it. At least, that’s my opinion…
P.S. This is also why political pundits are pretty much just a blight on our society.