Are my stakeholders logical?

When I went to university, I learned a lot about decision making in a business context. I learned that decisions should be sound and logical, based on good analysis, which in turn depends on the collection of evidence that is relevant, reliable and free from bias.

That is not exactly what I found when I starting working though.

Instead, most decisions seemed to be instinctive, based on a spur of the moment assessment of whatever information was immediately at hand.

At first I assumed that small decisions must be based on quick input and that large decisions should be based on sound, well informed judgement.

This, however, did not turn out to be the case. As I grew more experienced and found myself making big and small decisions throughout my career, I noticed that almost all of them were “instinct” driven. It’s not just me either, my view is also backed by research according to this great evidence that supports my thinking perfectly.

A diary study of 160 British middle and top managers found that they worked without interruption for a half hour or more only about once every two days

Henry Mintzberg, a knowledgeable fellow who agrees with me (https://hbr.org/1990/03/the-managers-job-folklore-and-fact – accessed 27 September 2020)

In fact, quick decisions based on hunches and educated guesses often seem to work for me. So maybe if everyone is doing it, then quick decision making is the way to go.

There are two issues with this approach though.

The first issue is that, apparently, quick decisions are generally driven by emotion rather than logic.

I know this is true for me, where my mood or even the time of day can impact the decisions I make. But is it just me? No, at least according to the evidence I found in this link I found on the internet .

Emotions are great, but emotional decisions also involve a reasonable amount of bias and tt’s a bit of a worry if everyone is rushing around making “gut feel” decisions, filled with bias.

However, to be fair, I do not think most of my stakeholders have been making flippant decisions based only on their existing bias.

I have worked with people who have great expertise in their field and their extensive experience shows through in their ability to make very quick, very sound decisions.

The experts encounter a seemingly new problem, then quickly recognise it as similar in some ways to another 200 problems that they have already solved. Then they decide whether to act, or conduct some more analysis. Where they act, it is often because they already see the critical factors that they need to take into account. Even where they decide to do some further analysis, they quickly identify the information needed to make a good decision or conduct focused experiments that will help us to learn quickly.

So I would say that in this case, my stakeholders are behaving logically.

Not everyone though. I have encountered situations where I have actually had people tell me that things are too urgent and too important to stop and assess the information that we have – that we need to rush forward like the characters in some action movie – fueled with adrenaline and confident that we can pull off victory in spite of clear evidence to the contrary.

“This is too urgent, we do not have time to check the facts. Kick the door open and lets see if the monster is waiting for us. Wait, did I remember to bring my stake?

Not so famous last words of the stakeholder without a stake.

Although this always seems to work out well in action movies, I have often found that passion and a sense of panic are rarely a good substitute for clear thinking and patience.

Which brings me to the second problem with this rapid decision making approach. Some of the stakeholders that I have worked with have a real aversion to quick decisions based on only a rough understanding of the facts.

Just when I instinctively want to make a call and get moving, they seem to actually slow down.

They quote stories like “The hare and the Tortoise” and ask really annoying questions that I never seem to know the answer to.

The correct approach, James, is to think then act, not the other way around.

Something my mother has said to me many times, often just after I acted and just as I started to think things through.

So I guess I would call these tortoises logical. I often decide faster and I am often right, while they take longer to agree to a decision but generally improve the decision as a result of their logical thinking.

Unfortunately though, this is not true of all my “slower moving” stakeholders. In one organisation I even used to complain about getting the “two handed architects” involved, because it always led to trouble.

These, admittedly smart, stakeholders would rush to help me. They would look at the problem and then quickly and efficiently report that more analysis was needed.

The two handed architects would then begin the “needed” analysis even as I was talking to them, performing some excellent research on large amounts of evidence, as well as drawing on numerous reports from Gartner, Forrester and, as far as I could tell, some ancient runes left in a shell script by scholars from Atlantis.

With all that analytical firepower and logical processing of such vast amounts of information, you would think that an excellent decision was assured, but in fact the opposite was true

No matter how long my two-handed friends took to report back, their answer was always the same

“On the one hand … we must consider concept A, leading to the this approach here is the best one; but on the other hand we need to also account for concept B, which would suggest that a different approach is better and our first approach would be terrible.”

Two handed architects when asked to make any recommendation

No matter what the problem, the recommendation was always “two handed” and completely impossible to act on.

When I would ask them to choose which hand to go with, they would find another two concepts to consider and then the process would repeat. As far as I can tell this is called a recursive design method and it is probably as intellectually challenging as it is useless.

It turned out that the only logical way make effective decisions in the organisation was to avoid the architects completely, which is what a lot of the development teams did.

But having stakeholders who provide detailed analysis that you ignore does not seem very logical. So I guess at least some of my stakeholders did act illogically.

By the way, if you have not heard of the “two handed architect,” it is a twist on an alleged quote from a US president some time ago. To learn more, you can follow my extensive evidence based research by following this link to an internet site I found that gives a summary that could well be correct.

So on balance I have had some excellent, very logical stakeholders to work with.

All I need to do is avoid the people who will contribute stupidity instead of logic – the “hares” who panic and rush about without sound judgement and the “two handed architects” who conduct pointly distraction when I need concise thinking.

I will then have only logical thinkers working with me – Some “experts”, fast decision makers who are “often right” and some “tortoises” who are slower but who “almost always right.”

There is a flaw in this approach though. How do I know the difference between “hares” and “experts”, or between “tortoises” and “two handed architects”?

I can of course use logic to decide, but here we return to the problem of bias – I am likely to judge someone as being logical if they seem to be raising good points, that I readily agree with. A point demonstrated in this video with leaders who are seem well versed in logic, at least to each other:

So if everyone seems to be making good sense then, perhaps, it is more logical to assume that we are suffering from groupthink, than to think that we are presenting brilliant arguments without fail.

Similarly if my stakeholders are all presenting illogical and annoying arguments, then it may be that they are Hares and Two -handed Architects, or there may be another explanation.

If everyone you work with is an idiot, then you have to wonder why all the smart people are avoiding you.

Me – September 2020

So what can we do? How do we solve problems collaboratively when we have stakeholders who are only sometimes logical and frequently wrong in their thinking? There is a solution that works quite well for this and, logically enough, it is called “collaborative problem solving”.

Collaborative problem solving works very well in my experience and a quick search of the internet provides ample evidence to support my view.

The problem though is that we do not really need collaborative problem solving when everyone understands the same logic and agrees to the same approach to solve a problem.

Where you want your stakeholders to listen to logical arguments that they are already likely to agree with, it does not matter much how well you frame your argument.

You can even just say “as everyone knows … ” or “according to aristotle, sprints are more effective than waterfalls at doing this so let’s have a story wall.” Your logic is pretty lame but people will agree anyway.

Similarly, where you are confident that their logical thinking will bring them to the same conclusion you will reach, you can let them do the talking while you pretend to be a great listener. Simply ask for their opinion instead of offering your own, nod while pretending to listen and then move forward quickly with what you assume they said. The odds are it will be what you were thinking anyway.

Of course the challenge is to use collaborative problem solving when your stakeholders are not (in your expert opinion) likely to have a sound grasp of the logical thinking involved to solve the problem, or you anticipate that their approach to solving the problem will be annoying and potentially distract you from your own thinking.

This is exactly where you need to be able to present your ideas most coherently, because you anticipate people resisting rather than understanding your clear and logical thinking. It is also when you most need to listen with curiosity to others, before deciding emotionally that they are being logical or not.

Listening for a chance to speak (ie not listening but just waiting to persuade them) or listening just to confirm your own thinking (gathering evidence that supports your view) is not so much problem solving as debating.

In fact I was quite surprised when I really started to listen to my stakeholders. I expected that they would bring different opinions and perspectives, which they did. What I had not expected was that they brought different types of “logic” or ways of thinking a problem through, which brought even more value.

So maybe the question is not whether “my stakeholders are logical” but rather whether “I am capable of understanding the logic that is potentially hidden in my stakeholder’s thinking”.

You only really understand the argument that someone is presenting when you understand not just their opinion, but how they came to form that opinion.

My dad when telling me about listening to people

This might not be as easy as it sounds though. Listening is hard when you expect your stakeholder to be logical and you find out that their “logic” is what you call logic.

But that is another story.


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