“Listen to them, without reference to your own views, for elements of their analytic position that make sense to you. Is it possible that every single thing they say – those who oppose you – is wrong? Or are there bits and pieces of their assessment that either align with what you think or represent some point of view that you hadn’t considered?”
How many of us have had our time wasted in meetings just hearing people state and restate and argue and re-argue their different points of view regarding a complex issue, over and over again? To each person, the complex issue is remarkably simple and has a clear answer – they just can’t agree on what that answer is.
A recurring message in Philip Mudd’s The HEAD Game – High Efficiency Analytic Decision-Making and the Art of Solving Complex Problems Quickly is that you should front-load your analytic exercise by taking the effort to make sure you’re asking the right questions to begin with, and that you’re consciously considering unknowns, assumptions, biases, etc.
One exercise that can help to uncover assumptions – leading to more efficient analysis and an escape from the assumption trap – is to consider opposing views, in what Mudd calls the “charity proposition”. The goal of this exercise is to identify and challenge our analytic assumptions, giving us the opportunity to address those ones that may prove unfounded, while quickly identifying areas of agreement.
In Mudd’s words, quoting from p108:
“To test yourself, take a position from the opposite perspective, assuming that other people who disagree with you nonetheless have something useful to say. Listen to them, without reference to your own views, for elements of their analytic position that make sense to you. Is it possible that every single thing they say – those who oppose you – is wrong? Or are there bits and pieces of their assessment that either align with what you think or represent some point of view that you hadn’t considered? If you start with this approach, you might realize that there is a substantial middle ground between what you hear from differing opinions around the table and what you had planned to say, before you conceded the floor to an alternate viewpoint.”
Let’s think about that for a moment and identify some key points.
First, the opposite perspective in this case isn’t someone or some team simply playing Devil’s advocate; instead, it’s a team or individual who’s looked at the same information, against the same drivers, to answer the same question, and has come to a different (maybe significantly, maybe subtly) conclusion.
Second, it takes maturity and discipline to implement the charity proposition, as it requires us to genuinely listen without getting defensive or dismissive; it requires us to set our ego aside for a moment and authentically seek to understand the reasons why a qualified team or individual arrived at a different conclusion than we did. And it forces us to look for ways in which our own analysis might be mistaken, perhaps succumbing to flawed assumptions, or hidden biases, or the expertise trap.
The outcome of this exercise is the efficient identification of points of agreement, points of disagreement, and a potentially huge middle-ground that might be the realm of opinion and assumptions.
Mudd goes on to say (p109):
“To start a conversation using the charity proposition, flip your personal view on its head and practice a little humility. Begin by noting those judgments or facts from your analytic adversaries you agree with or can’t disprove with facts. Then, when you present what you think, start with this common ground. Otherwise, if you go head-on into the battle, explaining that everyone else is wrong and that you represent the only perspective that makes sense, you not only will guarantee that the conversation will turn defensive, but you’ll also waste a lot of time while each party at the table states and restates the differing perspectives. This is not to say that you somehow just assume that everyone else is smarter than you, or better at piecing together their analyses than you are. It’s instead an exercise in analytic efficiency. By applying the charity proposition, you may be able to more quickly settle in on those core areas that represent real differences among the experts sitting around the table.”
Again, we see the requirement of humility; it’s easy enough to say and understand, but when egos show up to a meeting humility can be hard to find. To properly execute the charity proposition requires a meeting leader who’s comfortable managing egos and, ideally, who doesn’t have a preference to any outcome in particular, but who is adamant about using an efficient process to achieve an outcome.
Personally, I’ve been involved in plenty of discussions that consisted of round after round of people regurgitating their opinions (including my own), and refusing to budge or acknowledge that ‘the other side’ might have some valid points. With each round, people get more and more ‘stuck in’.
With the charity proposition, Mudd has provided us with an alternative: a simple framework and tactical tips to ease its implementation, and I’ll keep this technique in mind in future analytic and interpretative conversations.