Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Blunt Talk and Black & White Reasoning

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 done (see 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 reasoning.

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!
Copyright 2012 Workplace Insanity, All Rights Reserved


  1. Certainly candor is essential. We need to be factual and when a feature doesn’t work or a product does not perform, or something is an ugly kludge, we need to say so clearly. I spent enough time as a system tester to be sure of that.

    And while tolerance is a virtue, it has essential limits. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan declared: “You're entitled to your own opinions but you're not entitled to your own facts.” This succinctly (and rather bluntly) captures the extent and essential boundaries of tolerance. It is simply dishonest to tolerate facts presented as opinions, or to obscure or obfuscate facts. Clear thinking is essential, and the best communications makes clear thinking visible. Clear thinking, supported by rigorous fact finding, eliminate the need for weasel words.

    But we need to carefully distinguish between genuine dichotomies—you can take the stairs or the elevator but not both—and the many simplistic false dichotomies we are often bullied into believing. When George W. Bush famously declared “Either you are with us or against us” where did he place France, Turkey, Pakistan, China, and many other countries caught up in the complexities of the real world.

    Finally, I strive to advance both truth and grace, and to strictly prohibit ad hominem attacks. Don’t cross the line from argument to attack; there is no need to antagonize as you provide factual feedback.

    Thanks for another thought provoking article!

    Lee Beaumont

  2. Hi Lee,

    Thanks for some great observations. They are greatly appreciated.

    Thanks - Tom


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