Fightin’ Words

That's gonna leave a mark

Architect: Would it make sense to only host the UI on the SharePoint front end servers and put the other layers behind a service on another box?

Consultant: Naw, that would be stupid.

If you’ve read more than a couple of my posts, you may have noticed that I’m something of a fanatic about pragmatism. The blog was only a little more than two weeks old when “There is no right way (though there are plenty of wrong ones)” was published, and it’s been a recurring theme since. Whether designing a system or designing the process under which systems are developed, context is king and very little is truly absolute.

In the exchange above, the consultant in question didn’t need to ask about load on the front end web servers, dependencies, etc. before deciding that the idea was “stupid”. Any contextual information that might require deviating from the script appeared to be unwelcome. As it turned out, that wasn’t the case. The consultant was actually a very talented and flexible individual who had a momentary lapse in people skills. That momentary lapse, however, could just as easily poisoned the well and ended the collaboration before it started.

Most would understand that “stupid” is one of those words best avoided in all cases. However, words like “right”, “proper”, “good”, and “best” are frequently used as are “easy”, “quick”, and “cheap”. All of these are meaningless without context (and extremely subjective, even with it). Some can be positive or negative depending on the circumstances – is it shoddy “cheap” or inexpensive “cheap”? Ostensibly positive terms can seem like a weapon when you’re on the receiving end – if my way is “proper”, that would imply that your way (assuming it differs) is “improper”.

Just as lock-in creates a danger when designing, mental lock-in can lead to communication failures. Whether it is a matter of shutting down the conversation or misinterpreting it as such, the result will be the same. In my opinion, inadvertent offense is actually worse in that you’ve offended the other party and aren’t even aware of it, which can lead to unexpected issues in the future.

Another danger inherent in these words is the mindset it can foster, both in ourselves and others. We’re ill served when no one will challenge us and worse off when we’re too certain of our own skill. A few weeks back, the saying “strong opinions, weakly held” made the rounds on Twitter. It defines “Wisdom as the courage to act on your knowledge AND the humility to doubt what you know.” I’ll agree with Liz Keogh that it’s probably too much to ask for from a human, but it’s a worthy goal nonetheless.

So, does this mean that I’m advocating verbal pacifism? Hardly, I enjoy a good mental wrestling match too much for that. I do, however, recommend knowing when to be diplomatic (customers) and when to be nurturing (mentoring). As in everything, striking a balance and molding to the situation is key.

4 thoughts on “Fightin’ Words

  1. I think it’s a good point that the subtleties of subjective language matter when discussing issues. I was talking last night with some people about favoring qualifying opinion words instead of absolutes when getting feedback. For instance, there’s a subtle but important difference between someone telling you “that’s not how I would do it” or “I don’t like that” as opposed to “you’re wrong” or “that’s bad.” The former make it clear that there’s a difference of *opinion* whereas the latter indicate the speaker equates his opinions with objective facts. (which is, of course, fine if the mattering being discussed is a simple, factual one, but that rarely seems to be the case in these situations).

    Nice post.


  2. Many years ago (too many to admit without discomfort), an HR firm was hired by the company that gave me my first job. They gave personal style assessment tests (similar to Myers-Briggs) to all of the managers. The outcomes ranked people on 4 scales: Controlling/Taking, Conserving/Holding, Adapting/Dealing and Supporting/Giving. Results were also given for Normal and Stressful situations. High scores in one area were compensated for by low(er) scores in others.

    The thing that struck me was the HR consultant’s observation that balance is key. Too much or too little of a trait is problematic. For example, too much Conserving/Holding leads to analysis-paralysis. Too little leads to Ready-Fire-Aim,

    This strikes me as consistent with the theme of your post, Gene. We want people to be decisive, but in balance. Too decisive yields a stubborn autocrat who is blind to his/her unknown/unknowns. Insufficient decisiveness, yields a waffler, somebody who can’t make up their mind and changes their course based on the direction of the wind.


    • Indeed. During my LandAmerica tenure, someone became fond of the profiling system that categorizes by bird types: Dove (peaceful and friendly), Owl (wise and logical), Peacock (showy and optimistic), or Eagle (bold and decisive). We even received handsome inkjet renditions of our birds suitable for framing (where framing is defined as taping or tacking ’em up in our cubicles). I had to remind my hard-charging Eagle boss that we Owls killed stuff too, but managed to retain a better reputation.

      It’s probably obvious that I’m not a true believer when it comes to personality tests. Having taken and/or used the MMPI and Meyer-Briggs in addition to the D.O.P.E. above (great acronym, by the way) in the course of my careers, I’m all too aware of their limitations.

      However, one thing the bird test did highlight was how well the combination of Eagle boss and Owl me worked. Having each other as foils to play off of, we were free to let our personalities run and we did some really great things over the years. Without the devil’s advocate, I’m forced to play closer to the middle (the implication that our personality types are static is one my gripes with those kinds of tests).


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