Last year at the Business of Software conference, I found myself in several conversations where I was either asking for an opinion on one of my ideas or giving an opinion on someone else’s. I thought I was being a good conference attendee. I thought I was offering people a different perspective and expanding the number of approaches they could use to achieve their goals. I thought I was helping people. Unfortunately, I was wrong.
Telling people what you think of their ideas is a terrible thing to do at a conference. It’s not helpful. In fact, unless you’re their target market and they’re pitching you on their product, you’re probably only hurting people when you give them your opinion.
The problem with offering an opinion is that it doesn’t solve a problem. What we think is irrelevant. What our peers think also tends to be irrelevant. What matters is whether an approach to solving a problem works or not. You get that from asking your customers questions. You get that from testing peoples’ behaviors. You get that from analyzing quantifiable metrics. You don’t get it from opinions.
There’s a fine line that needs to be walked between offering an opinion and providing alternative approaches to solving a problem. It’s the difference between “Have you thought about trying X” vs “I think you should do A because X, Y and Z”. This first provides you an additional approach to try out while the second tries to analyze which is better. The opinionated approach works when someone is in unfamiliar territory. It falls apart when two solutions are both on the right path and you’re trying to decide which is “better”, whatever that might be.
As entrepreneurs, we face problems all day, every day. We want to find solutions. We want to solve these problems so we can move on to the next problem. Debating whether to do X or Y simply isn’t helpful. Neither is debating which is better.
We need to determine how to test these ideas so that we can measure how effectively they’re solving our problems. We also need to be able to measure the solutions against one another. If you can’t quantify the results, it’s impossible to justify one solution over another. At that point, you might as well flip a coin. And I’m not personally fond of letting a coin flip dictate my future success.
One way to effectively solicit help at the next conference you go to is to rephrase your questions to people. Instead of asking what someone thinks of your idea, tell them what your idea is and what your underlying hypothesis is. Then ask how they would test it to see if it’s the correct approach because it turns out that testing your ideas is a crucial part of the learning process. You can substitute just the word “learning” with nearly any aspect of your business and it still holds true, whether that word becomes marketing, sales, software development, customer development, etc. This leads to the conclusion that it’s not that testing ideas that is important, but that testing in general is important. I think we all get that.
But the problem is that we’re not doing it. More importantly, when we’re meeting up at conferences to learn from others, we spend our time explaining our ideas and asking what people think in a futile attempt to pick out the best idea, presumably so we’re not wasting time on the second and third best options. As I said, what we think is generally irrelevant. It’s the reality of the situations that is important and until we test those ideas, we have no way to prove or disprove our ideas. In fact, it’s on that very basis that many companies get funded or don’t get funded.
“No customers yet? Here’s a pile of money.”
“You’ve been live for six months and have ten customers? Let’s talk later when you’ve got more interest from other people who are interested in giving you money because let’s be honest. I’m a herd animal.”
We laugh at that for the same reason we laugh at Dilbert. It’s not funny because it’s funny. It’s funny because it’s true. In the face of uncertainty, you must have the ability to quantify results if you’re going to optimize your efforts for success. Picking the second or third best way to do something will usually still get you where you need to go. But sometimes it won’t. And if there’s a better way to do something, you need to know about it.
Let’s try to solve this problem. Here’s a thought experiment to try out at the the next software conference you go to, which by the way, I hope will be MicroConf 2013.
The next time you hear someone asking what you think of their idea, don’t tell them. Instead, determine their underlying hypothesis and discuss how they can quickly test the accuracy of that hypothesis. It is only through testing our hypotheses that we will learn what does and doesn’t work for our own businesses because every business is different. Yes, I know that’s “consulting speak” for “it depends”, but the fact is that it does depend. And a single valid data point is worth a thousand opinions.