Strong opinions, weakly held

by admin on July 20, 2006

in General

Ross Mayfield at SocialText pointed me to Bob Sutton Professor of Management Science and Engineering in the Stanford Engineering School, who has a glorious piece entitled the Snowstorm Study.

…researchers have shown that when people feel mistreated and dissatisfied with their jobs, they are unwilling to expend “discretionary effort.” It makes sense to me. When I am stuck working for, or with, assholes, I don’t go out of my way to help. But when I admire my bosses and peers, I’ll go to extreme lengths to help –- and it is clear that most people feel and act the same way.

Yeah – that happens in the blog world. Yesterday, I talked about my Mr.1% meme with a senior manager at a firm of CAs. It was nice to pass that onto an eager beaver. That then got me to look at Jeff Pfeffer on the Virtues of Assholes where he introduces the novel idea of TCA – Total Cost of Assholes. Finally, I read Strong Opinions, Weakly Held where Bob talks about the difference between smart and wise people.

Americans are great at putting up catchy headlines and Bob is no exception. But there is depth in his thinking and the reading was a serendipitous segue from another article by David Maister: Work and LifeStyle Balance – Can a firm Give Options? There, David refers to the sometimes extremes of conflict among professional partners and how it’s almost impossible to resolve them without breaking up the firm. How I wish I’d had the wisdom David talks about back in 1993 when I resigned from partnership. (For which see my About page.) In discussing an internecine partnership war David says:

All concerned hoped that differences between the groups could be resolved through compensation system adjustments. Of course they could not, and the firm eventually split up – which was probably the right outcome.

Neither group was wrong in any real sense.

That resonated 100% with me. In 1993, I wanted to go one way, the senior partner didn’t. Two of my other partners wanted to tag along with me, but another didn’t. When push came to shove, the supporters didn’t have the stomach for what would almost certainly have been a very messy fight and so I took the decision to walk. In truth – everyone was relieved. None of us was wrong. We were all right. We all prospered in our own ways.

With the benefit of hindsight, I see that we’d become entrenched. As far as I was concerned the senior partner was an asshole. I was not prepared to figure out a way of having strong opinions, weakly held so I could not find a compromise – even if it meant a split. He in turn was determined to make it almost impossible for us to come to a sensible settlement. He probably thought I was an asshole. He wouldn’t be the first or the last.

The truly sad part was that I’d never been trained to work these things out and resolved never to be in partnership ever again. Today, I find myself collaborating with many different people in many different ways. Effectively I’m in partnership.

If (God forbid), I was to ever go back into practice, I’d certainly advise folk to consider my experience, see what people like Bob and David have to say and then figure out how to apply it to their firm. It might help put an end to the misery many practitioners experience when it dawns on them they’re really in organisations that are a collection of individuals who just happen to trade under a common banner.

It’s the start of true collaboration. And you need to have that experience if you are to get from underneath the idea that a professional knows best when advising clients. In short, it stops you being an asshole.

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