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Blunt Talk and Black & White Reasoning
By Tom Dennis – President,
Effective Engineering [email@example.com]
In response to two of my recent articles,
Promises & Delivery and
Excuses, Excuses!, I heard back from a friend of mine, Jim
Bleck. Jim is the owner and President of
Bleck Design Group, a great industrial design and engineering
company I have worked with in the past at a number of companies. Jim sent
comments indicating, “I think the world has way
too much hope and opinion, when what it needs is action and facts. … The
world is ready for blunt talk and more black and white reasoning.”
I wholeheartedly agree, and I will expand on his comments and add mine.
Here are some of Jim’s right
on the money comments:
• I always remind
our staff that our client’s expectations are already very high (on the
ceiling). Don’t increase the expectations – just deliver! There is
always a fine line between aggressive goals and too-low expectations.
• I see too many problems develop from a lack of deep understanding
or even desire to have a deep understanding.
• I’m seeing too many engineers, business managers, salesmen, and
designers ‘assume’ information acquired from past experience, data sheets,
and hearsay was correct, or all of the story.
• We apply the blunt and black and white standard to weed out weak
information or opinions that are not backed by provable facts. When we get a
problem developing, we start mining the history of information and we get
back to assumptions made based upon over-simplification, or industry
specifications that may not apply, or on published information that is old.
You can’t question everything, but you can at least be curious and keep your
knowledge base growing.
• Many of the problems get started because, due to time and budget,
intuition and experience must take over, and then little problems creep up
that experience and intuition can’t solve. That’s when you need to get very
blunt and honest about the issues. “Should work” needs to be followed by
“but it fails, so it does not work!” Something is obviously amiss. As
companies push innovation and get beyond experience, this really starts to
be an issue, but that is also where value gets created. Intellectual
Property (IP) is discovered, sizes are reduced, and functions not thought
possible are discovered. For managers who don’t understand the technology,
they can easily get baffled by it. Only simple, blunt talk gets past the
haze of geek speak and endless nuances.
• Lastly, there is blunt talk when evaluating features. There are
times where, using the examples of Steve Jobs, it is necessary to tell
people, “this is shit”, and make them defend their work and make it better.
• There is always a fine line between perfection and never getting
The Perfect Is the Enemy of the Good), so you manage it.
Managing conflict turns out to be a huge issue, and especially when everyone
gets a thin skin and can’t just state the facts. I want my staff to tell me
my estimate is crazy and define why we can get the job done for the price I
quoted. Or, explain why the budget is so large when the problem seems small.
I want to be able to look at work in progress and ask critical questions
without a flinch.
• Anyway, you want to make people think. The older I get, the more I
know the world is all about change, so deal with it and love it!
Here are my thoughts:
• I think ‘weasel words’ are too often used to try to paper over
problems or present something in a positive light that doesn’t deserve that
positive spin. There is too much searching for ‘nuance’, when dealing
with real facts will most directly get to the root cause of problems, and
open the way to finding real solutions.
• I think there is far too much concern today about the impact of hurting
people’s feelings, or damaging their ‘self-esteem’ (oh, how I hate
that term!). Too often, this concern is placed ahead of delivering on what
you’ve committed to. Political correctness can be destructive.
• Your customers or clients don’t want weasel words or nuance.
They want an honest description of the product, the situation, and the
facts. They don’t care about your peoples’ feelings or self-esteem;
they just want delivery on what they’ve been promised, and if you can’t
deliver, they’ll find someone else who will.
• Everybody on your team needs to recognize these blunt facts of
life. Let them know that you intend to present blunt facts and black and
white reasoning divorced from the impact it may have on them personally,
and only in terms of what it means to your customers or clients. While you
won’t intentionally ‘hurt’ people or their feelings, they must
understand reality and the facts, and that customers come first.
• State the facts. Show the pros & cons, positives & negatives, upsides &
downsides, actions & reactions, actions & consequences, what happens if you
do something & what happens if you don’t, etc.
• State your case logically and factually (see
Pound the Facts, Not the Table). Thoroughly define the facts
(things that just ‘are’; that won’t change if conditions change).
Then define the actions needed to accomplish your goal (see
Keep Your Eye on THE GOAL!). Show your reasoning in black &
white, making crystal clear what went into your reasoning. Show that
you’re hiding nothing, and exposing everything.
• Avoid hubris! Your ideas are not the only good ideas. Be humble, yet
strong. Honestly examine the alternatives and evaluate whether the
alternatives are better or worse and why. Ask others to thoroughly review
your reasoning and conclusions, and to present their own alternatives. Look
for variations to your and other solutions that build on the strengths, yet
minimize the weaknesses of both.
Customers today, whether external or internal, are looking for
Promises AND Delivery on your commitments to them (see
Say What You Mean, Mean What You Say, and Do What You Say You’ll Do!),
and no excuses! The most effective way to achieve this is to
cut through the clutter by using blunt talk and black & white
I’d like to thank Jim Bleck for his
great comments on both of my earlier articles. His blunt and insightful
comments were a great motivation for this article!
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