Opinions That Matter

Be cautious with the advice you seek. Be more cautious with the advice you offer.

I enjoy and appreciate seeking business input from all kinds of people on all kinds of topics, but lately, I’m noticing that much of what people offer is too off the cuff. I usually know a problematic opinion is coming my way when I spend several minutes framing the complexity of a souring issue, and the assessment I receive is preceded by this phrase:

“Why don’t you just…”

That warning prelude is often followed by a very simple response in a sentence or fragment encompassing very few words. Some examples of confounding suggestions:

“Why don’t you just reduce your overhead?”

“Why don’t you just hire someone else?”

“Why don’t you just find a new supplier?”

“Why don’t you just change the value proposition to your customer?”

“Why don’t you just worry less about your brand?”

All of these phrases were spoken in earnest, in a neutral tone without any particular agenda or adversarial intention. I said my thing and they said theirs.

There’s another warning sign that preceded these suggestions—the words were delivered quite quickly, the “Why” being initiated almost instantly on the period ending my lead-in sentence.

There is a word to describe this kind of give and take. It would best be described as “conversation.”

It could also be described as “bar talk.”

There’s nothing wrong with conversation or bar talk, as long as we realize that’s what it is. Banter is entertainment, not problem-solving. Words that pass the time are not thoughtful solutions. In matters of consequence, I find chit-chat troubling traveling in both directions.

The easiest response to a “Why don’t you just…” suggestion is probably the obvious: “Uh, yeah, we thought about that and ruled it out… months ago.”

A less polite response might be: “Buddy, can you take this discussion a bit more seriously?” If you are in a bar in the midst of bar talk with someone who has been drinking a few hours, be careful in selecting that response, or at least judicious in the tone you use to convey it.

The lack of thoughtfulness in idea-sharing may come down to a matter of confidence and overconfidence. I applaud you for having a quick response to my nagging torment. It is possible I missed the obvious in the fog, but when I hear my problems so easily solved, what I really hear is someone who might not have failed enough. We all fail and to some extent learn from failure, but where is the empathy in our counsel when it comes to someone else’s dilemma, where we are less likely to lose anything if we are wrong?

Some call that having skin in the game. There is nothing that will slow down your response rate quicker than putting your own money or success at risk. You may be confident in making an investment, but when it starts to flounder, overconfidence should have already left the building.

Opinions can be interesting, but when they fail to embrace consequences, they can undermine trust in relationships.

When I am sharing a problem with you, I am not simply venting. I am seeking an improved outcome. If you want to help me, try getting me to rethink the problem in areas I might be stuck. Try some of these approaches on me and you’re likely to catch me listening more intently:

“What is the data telling you about changes in circumstance?”

“When you made that choice, what were the key factors that led to your initial decision?”

“Are your competitors in the same boat, or is this unique to your company?”

“Is the situation temporary and likely to reverse with more usual market conditions, or have the market conditions fundamentally changed?”

“What other advice have you received on the topic, and how was it helpful or damaging?”

If I share a problem with you, I don’t expect you to have the solution. Unless I have gotten ridiculously lucky, you probably can’t solve my problem. Yet if we work through a set of abstracts together, it is possible you might cause me to look at the problem differently and start me on the path to identifying a new solution. Dialogue like that in times of trouble has infinitely more value than a spitball suggestion.

Ego gets in our way when we think the winning outcome of a discussion is to have the right answer. That kind of overconfidence is unrealistic at best and reckless at worst.

Our roles in listening to each other are about being helpful, about unlocking hidden secrets in our judgment and navigating safely around treacherous obstacles. Slam dunks may win bragging rights, but in my many decades on the job, I’ve never heard one that changed the landscape in real-time.

Our words have consequences. Noble advice requires discipline and credibility. If what you prefer is bar talk, let me know and I’ll tell you why I think the Dodgers lost the last two World Series. I can’t imagine anyone in Dodgers management asking my opinion on that. Why would they seek an opinion that didn’t matter?

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Image: Pixabay

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When Your Team Loses

The Houston Astros won the 2017 World Series last week. The Los Angeles Dodgers lost. It was an epic contest. Many have observed it was one of the greatest World Series match-ups in the history of Major League Baseball. It lasted into the mythic and deciding Game 7, crossing tentatively into the month of November, creating the first-ever Game 7 at Dodger Stadium and the first-ever MLB game played in November at Dodger Stadium.

This year’s fall classic delivered all of the drama any fan could want from a World Series. There were come-from-behind victories one after another, larger-than-life villains and heroes caught in an explosive discussion of racism, more lazy walks and majestic home runs than most of us could imagine, and two world-class managers locked in a battle of wits. It was an endurance contest. It began in Game 1 at 103 degrees on the sweltering Chavez Ravine field and ended there eight days later some forty degrees cooler. It brought many viewers back to the game who had abandoned baseball for its slow pace in our ever-hectic world. It was the perfect collision of talent and human will emerging from an always imperfect playing season.

Then it was over.

Only one team could take home the Commissioner’s Trophy. One team did, in a stadium not their own but on a makeshift stage they made their own. The local contenders, who could win only three of seven games, looked on from the home team dugout and watched the award ceremony broadcast to the globe. Behind the blue-flagged dugout sat their fans, also staring vacantly beyond the bright television camera lights with sadness and acceptance. I was among those fans. I slumped in my hardwood seat and watched the grand on-field celebration to my right and the silence of humility to my left.

Bart Giamatti, former MLB Commissioner and President of Yale University, probably said it best in his acclaimed essay The Green Fields of the Mind:

It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart.

That is the game, where each preliminary round of the postseason always ends in an event called an elimination game, and then the World Series itself winds down to the final elimination game. When your team is eliminated from competition, your season is over. There are no appeals. At the final elimination game, one team is victorious. The other team retains the consolation prize of league champion, but it is increasingly less of a bragging right than it was in professional baseball’s beginnings over a century ago.

The eliminated team leaves the field with a broken heart shared with its fans. That is the design. It needs no improvement. A loss is as perfect in its ability to stir emotion as a win means to those who share a parade in the glorious days following the final pitch.

So why does any of this matter? Baseball is a business, a big-money enterprise where fans shell out enormous sums of money for ballpark visits, television and internet subscriptions, staggeringly high-margin junk food, proud but ridiculously overpriced authentic field wear, signed souvenirs, trading cards, collectors’ memorabilia, and tiny parking spots where door dings are as much a part of the game as the ceremonial first pitch. Players are traded back and forth late in the season as insurance for a playoff spot, and just because you call it your home team doesn’t mean many of the players on the payroll call it home.

Why does it matter? If you are a fan, you have to answer it in your own way. Let me try to answer it in mine.

Never mind that the Los Angeles Dodgers, a controversial transplant from Brooklyn today playing in the second-largest media market in the nation, haven’t even appeared in a World Series since 1988, the year ace Clayton Kershaw was born. Never mind that the Dodgers are the team of historic #42 Jackie Robinson, whose jersey number is the only one retired across both the National and American leagues. Never mind that Dodger Stadium, the model for modern stadiums when it opened in 1962, the year I was born, is now the third-oldest stadium among the 30 in MLB. All of that is nice context, but it doesn’t reasonably define why I would feel sorrowful over a loss in Game 7.

In fact, in a world plagued by continuing terrorism, nonstop acts of violence, social vitriol, political lunacy, global instability, and wildly unjust economic inequality, why do seven months of three-hour-plus games played day and night on well-manicured fields by young millionaire athletes directed by billionaire ownership groups matter at all? It shouldn’t, right? We’re adults, aren’t we? We’ve got important stuff to worry about, not the velocity of a breaking ball walloped by a carved piece of wood and sailing 400 feet into the bleachers of a 50,000-seat arena.

Well, let’s try it another way and go back to Bart Giamatti, a Renaissance scholar and baseball fanatic who left us much too early but was gracious enough to capture some meaning in all of it in his own temporal longing:

There are the truly tough among us, the ones who can live without illusion, or without even the hope of illusion. I am not that grown-up or up-to-date. I am a simpler creature, tied to more primitive patterns and cycles. I need to think something lasts forever, and it might as well be that state of being that is a game; it might as well be that, in a green field, in the sun.

That is why it matters to me. It matters because it lasts all our lives. It dies with the coming of winter and is reborn in the spring. I love the game because my father loved the game. It is essentially the same game, forget the bells and whistles and data analytics and all that newfangled scoreboard jazz. The game no matter what is fully unpredictable to the final out, the alchemy of athleticism, calculating strategy, and too often chance. It is consistent in its ritual routines, relentless in its aggregate simplicity, intoxicating in its repetitiveness. Forever it has broken hearts. We share that from generation to generation, from season to season. It is absolute in its constancy, absolute in its recurring challenge, absolute in its finality — until it comes again.

It always comes again. It has to come again. It is designed to break your heart.

When your team loses, you internalize the emotion, politely congratulate the winning opponent, and make no excuse for the silliness of the sadness in your obsession with constancy. We all like to win. We all want to win. We all want to be part of winning. Yet more than that, we all want to be part of something that matters because it holds us together with permanence solely because its vitality is assured in its unfailing renewal.

The Brooklyn Dodgers, who didn’t win a World Series until 1955, owned the nickname Dem Bums. Each year they lost, Dem Bums and the fans who followed them would finish the season with the same words: “Wait ’til next year.” Dem Bums knew the answer to what you do when your team loses.

I’ll see you at the green field next April. Opening Day is traditionally played in the early afternoon. With a little luck the sun will be shining on all of us.

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Photo: By the author, Ken Goldstein (11/1/17)