Wednesday, October 1, 2008

State The Obvious

It is a standard plot device, often used in sitcoms, to have two people talking to each other, each thinking he knows what the conversation is about, but each believing the conversation is about something completely different than the other is thinking. Each goes away thinking he has communicated and bases his continued activities on that assumption, eventually leading to a comical denouement when the truth comes out.

Unfortunately, if it happens to you, I suspect it would be much less likely to seem funny. I try to avoid getting into this situation by following a simple principle: State The Obvious. Because what is obvious to me may not be obvious to the other person.

I enjoyed a scene from the recent movie Mama Mia where they took this standard plot device and turned it around, in the scene where Harry and Bill are in the boat discussing their recent revelations. As an audience member, I thought I understood that each was talking about discovering that Sophie was (as he thought) his daughter and thinking the other was talking about something else - only to realize at the end of the movie that perhaps they really were each talking about what the other thought they were! A nice little two-sided double-entendre conversation.

When I was in college, I heard this anecdote:
A professor is lecturing in a math class, writing derivations on the board as he talks through a proof. At one point, he says, "From here it is obvious that -" but then he turns away from the board, saying "Just a moment." He flips open his notebook and scribbles for a few minutes, then turns back to the proof on the board: "Yes, I was right, it is obvious."
As E.T. Bell said, "'Obvious' is the most dangerous word in mathematics."

"Obvious" is like "intuitive": not necessarily the same for different people. Many years ago I was developing an application using the Athena widgets on X-Windows. I asked one of my co-workers to try it out so that I could get some early usability feedback. At one point he came to a window with a scroll bar. He had quite a bit of difficulty making the scroll bar work, and he was getting rather annoyed. Finally he said, "I don't understand this scroll bar. It's not intuitive. It's not like the Mac." He could have decided to leave off that final part of his complaint, where he mentioned the Mac, assuming I would understand. Fortunately, he stated the obvious. That made it an Aha! moment for me, because I finally understood what people really mean when they say something is intuitive.

Earlier this year I watched a Mythbusters episode in which they tested the question of whether an airplane on a treadmill can take off. I thought to myself, "Well, that's a pretty stupid one, the answer is obvious to anyone who understands any physics." Part way through the episode Jamie made a similar comment, saying it was one of the stupidest tests they had ever done because the answer was obvious. What I found rather curious was the fact that they said this was one of the most hotly debated myths ever discussed on their web site. Why would there be so much debate over something so obvious? I was even more surprised when Jamie said "of course it can", given that my thought had been "of course it can't"! The discrepancy became clear once they finished the test and their airplane took off: Jamie and I were making different assumptions about the interpretation of the test. Jamie was assuming a very long treadmill, long enough that the plane could still accelerate and move relative to the air, whereas I had been assuming a treadmill similar in size to the plane, which would require the plane to take off essentially from a standstill with respect to the air. The difference in our interpretations of the problem explained not only why our conclusions were different, but also explained to me why there was so much debate: people were not sufficiently explaining their assumptions, probably because they were "obvious", so each side ended up thinking the other side were idiots who did not understand physics.

Although there are some people who like to make fun of being obvious (and I admit I enjoy their humor), we are also reminded in music and other places to state the obvious. It is also culturally important. And while I agree that we should not be required to state the obvious, doing so can sometimes save us some trouble.

I believe that companies should also follow the State The Obvious principle. Here are a couple of statements of company policy that I would hope would be obvious for all companies, each of which I have seen explicitly stated by a different large company:
  • Don't Be Evil.
  • We obey all the laws of the land.
There are many companies that abide by these principles without explicitly stating them, but I can think of at least one large American company with a reputation for violating both of them.

As with the company, I also believe you should adhere to the State The Obvious principle for your own work at the office. For example, if you are working with your peers to select a new vendor, product, or technology, make sure you have explicitly stated and agreed on the requirements or selection criteria, even if they are obvious to you. You may think it is obvious that single-supplier lock-in is a bad thing, but perhaps your peers do not share that position. Once you have stated and agreed on those criteria, you can ask your peers to justify their selections based on how those selections support the agreed-upon criteria - but be prepared to do the same for any selection you propose.

Of course, there is always the possibility that, once you do State The Obvious, the other person will refuse to accept your statement, no matter how much you belabor it. Or, even worse, he may try to change the situation such that your obviously true statement is no longer true, which could have unpleasant consequences for you ("whop").

Actually, this whole discussion should be unnecessary. After all, it's obvious that your life will be better if you follow the principle of State The Obvious. Isn't it?

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