Pick a contentious topic, Brexit, Trump, Climate change, religious extremism or even the merits of Justin Bieber and the chances are you have an opinion. In the IT industry there are many contentious issues, Agile, Scrum, Emergent architecture; all emotive topics that are filling up the comments sections of blogs all over the internet. But what makes your opinion right and what makes other believe it?
For your opinion to be “right” your hypothesis should logically fit the situation, and that really means YOUR understanding of YOUR situation. Our context, environment and relationships are what shape our understanding of a situation; two people in vastly different situations can correctly hold widely differing opinions on the same topic, because to each of them, their hypothesis holds true in their environment; “Behaviour is a product of practices in a context” (Dan North).
This approach supports the neat little adage that opinion is a matter of perspective. We should go one further, opinion is a PRODUCT of perspective. When we wish to debate between opinions there is no merit in focusing on the opinion itself, that is to try to deny the rational logic of localised cause and effect, instead our attention should turn to the perspective, to that person’s context in which the opinion has been formed. “Understanding context is important before you draw any conclusions” (Dave Snowden).
Someone’s opinion that, “everyone that voted for Brexit is a racist” could be formed if they have heard a number of people state they are for Brexit using racist terminology, and critically they had no contact with other Brexit voters that did not express such ideologies. Supporting opinions is data, here the data is, ‘the number of non-racists encountered that support Brexit’. Edward Demming alluded to this in his much quoted line, “Without data you’re just another person with an opinion”, which Jim Barksdale, former CEO of Netscape neatly expanded with, “If all we have are opinions, let’s go with mine”. The point here is that you can’t argue with the opinion, the argument has to be taken with the data that underpins it. There are millions of people that believe what Donald Trump says about the Washington establishment, because they have no contrary data.
Critically, to form the most educated opinion, the best opinion, we should seek out data from as many disparate contexts as possible, we need to consciously seek to put ourselves in other people’s shoes, something we don’t usually enjoy and hence rarely do.
Now here is the really challenging point for all of us that hold an opinion: if we agree that opinion is a product of perspective, and perspective is a function of our context, then we accept that our opinions will change if we change our context.
If I change your context, you will change your opinion….
Stating that your opinion won’t change on a topic is to state that you will ignore new data that would logically draw a different conclusion. To say you will never change your opinion on something is to be a zealot. To hold a position based on faith, dogma or belief is to deny rational logic. This is quite a problem today where changing opinions are seen as a function of weakness not learning. An “expert” that changes their opinion will have their “expert” status questioned or derided, even though it is their expertise that has enabled them to learn more on a topic and be open to drawn new logical conclusions to their now wider data set.
This can be seen in the Dunning Kruger effect, as people’s experience grows, so does their exposure to differing contexts and there will be a point where people have started to change their opinions, and being aware that they could change further, are less likely to forthright about them. Do not trust the Agile coach that states operational process changes without seeing the teams at work, it belies a narrow contextual exposure.
Our society is becoming increasingly polarised, many have used the term ‘post-factual‘. This is a reference to widespread opinions that are unaffected by new data. Our opinion strengthens when we receive new information that aligns to our existing data and weakens in the face of contrary data, although we have a tendency to favour the status quo. We all suffer from confirmation bias, where we will disproportionately listen to information that supports our ideas, but it can be overwhelmed, we also have varying levels of trust for data sources. So for opinions to be unchanging, it means that information being received by people is sufficiently supporting their existing context so as to suppress any contrary data, especially from untrusted sources. Of course, which data is trusted is an opinion itself…
The problem is that we seek out the company of likeminded people and increasingly our human relationships are being sustained through social media which is underpinned with algorithms that prioritise interactions of demographically similar people, because that will generate more content/revenue. This means we are increasingly exposed to a defined subset of data, separate groups of people consistently reinforcing their opinions with separate datasets. This is referred to as being in an Echo chamber.
Echo chambers are dangerous because they are comfortable. It is reassuring to be surrounded by people that agree with you and you become blind to alternative contexts. Echo chambers are where innovation dies due to lack of disruptive challenge. They are invisible ideological prisons.
We need to constantly challenge our opinions; be open to the fact that they will change and be open and honest when they do. Seek out different perspectives, speak to people who don’t agree with you and try to understand the situations that they find themselves in. Be measured when giving your opinion and support it with data to help others to understand your perspective. Strongly asserting unsubstantiated opinions rarely achieves anything , either you are speaking to someone who already agrees with you, or someone that can’t understand you.
What’s your opinion?
I am Phil Thompson, an Agile Consultant, have worked at many places in many industries and with many people, mostly in Europe, mostly in the UK, mostly in London. My opinions are my own, shaped and challenged by the people and companies I have been fortunate to work with over the past fifteen yrs.