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Monday, September 15, 2003

tools and results

ok, i’ve noticed that i’m exploring some recurring themes here in this public space, and one of them is determinism. another is the geek paradigm, and the third is the rant that started this whole blog – domain experts.

today, i’m going to bring these threads together into a braid (three theads is a braid, right? anyway….)

this is a rock.

1) you use this to pound grain to make flour to make bread.
2) you use this to beat on someone’s head and take their bread.

same tool, same result, different approach.

today’s lesson: it’s all in your approach.

in this example, we know that the first approach had to come first – someone has to make the bread before someone can take the bread. sometimes that’s not so obvious.

this object lesson comes from three incidents i either witnessed or was party to in recent days. they both concern relatively intelligent people, who, at this time, shall remain nameless. i have great (in one case) or at least some (in the others) respect for these intellects. recently, i’ve lost respect for them in the “vision” department.

in all cases, these people are intelligent enough to have established some credibility (and this is a good thing). they also come to the discussion with a set of preconceptions and experiences that shape their opinions (and this is an inevitable thing). the problem arises when they are faced with new, different, or unfamiliar approaches to something they think they know. since they think they know these things, they already have all the answers (and this is a bad thing).

probably the most important cost of this situation is that an off-the-cuff comment from an otherwise intelligent and credible individual can completely stifle the discussion. “bad idea. won’t work.” from the right person is enough to end the train of thought – without contributing any substance (and this is important – remember, we’re talking about approaches).

i, personally, happen to be just arrogant and unreasonable enough to dismiss otherwise credible people that say these things to me, because, in keeping with the geek paradigm, i know best how to do what i want to do – these people are simply wrong. that’s ok. everyone is entitled to be wrong once in a while, and i’ve certainly been wrong myself (twice, actually, but that’s material for another entry 🙂 ). what is important for me to realize (and demonstrate on a continuing basis) is that i may be wrong, but i’m engaged. i know i don’t know all the answers, and my answers adapt over time as i discover new, relevant material.

what bothers me is that these otherwise intelligent, credible people might actually have something constructive to contribute – either directly (such as by suggesting a new approach, or a relevant model) – or indirectly, by asking intelligent questions and forcing the consideration of new material.

in a dialogue, being “dismissed” like that is fine. particularly if your “domain expert” is a busy person and has other material to focus on. where this is not appropriate is in a public forum where these off-the-cuff comments result in the end of the multilogue. everyone shuts up, because the expert has spoken.

we all struggle to develop and express our ideas, and we are likely to fumble around and pick the wrong metaphor or example to make a point. that metaphor or example may sound like something you already know, but be careful when jumping to conclusions. maybe this person is just trying to give you an example in terms with which they think you’re comfortable. engage. or, at the very least, if you’re not going to engage, then disengage in a polite, non-stifling manner and let the rest of us flail around until we realize you were right all along.

it is all in the approach.

perhaps the problem isn’t interesting to you (and i mean you as a “domain expert” or “geek”) – but please, be very careful throwing your opinions around – especially those that are not well-considered. with credibility (power) comes responsibility. and i hate to knock you down a notch, but you don’t have all the answers, and the rest of us are trying to make some progress out here.

really, this is nothing new…

george bernard shaw (1856 – 1950)

The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable man persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.

and just for fun, i’m going to throw in a little pop culture too (because shaw appreciates good company)….

ed solomon, maybe (you figure it out)

Everything they’ve ever “known” has been proven to be wrong. A thousand years ago everybody knew as a fact, that the earth was the center of the universe. Five hundred years ago, they knew it was flat. Fifteen minutes ago, you knew we humans were alone on it. Imagine what you’ll know tomorrow.

update (2003.09.20): something i probably should’ve included in the original post: if you have credibility and your approach isn’t appreciated, you are very likely to be ridiculed ferociously. fair warning: beware the heckle.

posted by roj at 11:35 am