How to stop the bullsh*t

Do you believe that dandruff can ruin your social life? Are you convinced that you are the auditory type of learner? (Or the visual or tactile one?) Is agile going to make everything faster, nicer and happier by the means of sprints, velocity, burn-down charts and story points?

Yes, these are typical examples of bullsh*t that is everywhere around us. And your challenge is: get better at recognizing it and counteracting it.

Why do you need that? Bullsh*t is one of the most prominent sabotage patterns that looms over today’s organizations and societies — slowing progress, making it difficult to take meaningful actions, and making people disengaged and unhappy. It’s the direct opposite of what we want — happiness, a sense of accomplishment, and engagement and freedom.

The four categories of bullsh*t

Talking about stuff instead of doing it

You have been through this — countless, long, unproductive meetings where people just talk and talk, not to advance conversation, but to show how smart they are or to be the centre of attention. Or people advocating caution about every new idea, essentially halting experimentation and progress.

Buzzword storms

Like in my agile-as-a-silver-bullet question, these consist predominantly of using as many buzzwords as you can fit into one sentence. Usually in order to either appear smart or to convince others that you are an expert. (True experts — or people who know a lot about the domains they are talking about — don’t have the urge to use buzzwords, they are able to explain things in very simple language.)

A separate — but related — category of this can be found on Twitter. People are adding “trendy” hashtags to anything they post. (Be curious: next time you look at your Twitter feed, look for people that add i.e. #agile, #scrum, #lean and #kanban to almost every tweet they write, regardless of what it is about. These are bullsh*tters.)

Acceptable and likeable phrases with no scientific backing

Demonstrated by the type-of-learner question (this classification has been scientifically disproven), this category consists of statements that look true — or our biased minds tend to evaluate them as true. Yet they have no scientific backing and in most cases are the opposite of what research says.

Avoiding direct answers to questions

Have you ever asked a question only to receive an lengthy answer that was not an answer at all? Or have you given such an answer when you did not understand the question or just did not want to admit you don’t know the answer? Willingly not getting to the point but pretending you are is the last main category of bullsh*t.

Three ways to recognize bullsh*t

Be skeptical

You need to maintain a skeptical approach when confronted with bombastic news that may fall into one of the categories described above. (Hey, I am the skeptical agilist, what did you expect?) Don’t take things at a face value — dig deeper to learn and understand more.

Use genuine curiosity

When you dig deeper, do it from a stance of genuine curiosity. Don’t try to disprove things just for sake of disproving them — treat potential bullsh*it as a learning opportunity where you can discover more real information about a subject you knew nothing about before.

Ask many open-ended questions such as “What facts is this based upon?” or “I want to learn more about this — what is the underlying evidence?” If there is none, you have just found bullsh*t.

Ask for actions

Do you hate nice (bullsh*t!) talks that lead precisely nowhere? The way you can deal with this kind of bull is simple: ask how whatever is the core of the discussion could be made actionable. You can use phrases such as “What hypotheses and experiments can we derive from this to move forward? or “How do we act upon these discussion points?.

The morality of bullsh*t

Culture and education

One of the biggest influences on future bullsh*tters is our (and by “our” here I mean Western) culture and education system. Remember your days at school? You were always expected to give an answer, weren’t you? And even an answer that answered nothing was usually better than no answer at all, wasn’t it?

The traditional (industrial, we might say) educational system is based on always expecting and praising answers. (And punishing not knowing and a willingness to learn by admitting you don’t know something). The result: a tendency to make up answers, for fear of admitting you have none.

Fear of failure and lack of trust

When you give a lengthy say-nothing answer, or when you use many abbreviations, and cool buzzwords, why are you doing it? I bet that usually the underlying motivation is fear or lack of trust. Maybe you are worried that by not having an answer to everything could put you out of a job. Be viewed less valued among your colleagues? Be subject to bullying?

The “compulsory happiness” syndrome

We all believe that organic happiness — the one coming from you feeling valuable, making a contribution and doing work that connects with your personal values — is what makes great places to work.

Compulsory happiness — the kind that needs chief happiness officers, where everybody is expected to agree with all the others and that exhibits through many “fun” activities people actually don’t find fun — on the other hand leads to bullsh*t. It produces those meaningless likeable phrases that do nothing other than pollute the world around us. (And in the worse cases, they create mass craziness — like was the case of dandruff that was not a social problem until companies started advertising very believable statements that it can ruin your social life.)

Your no-bull challenge

I hope you are now convinced that bullsh*t is nothing you’d like to support. And also that many of us are using it on various occasions, often due to reasons we don’t have full control over, like our culture and education.

The challenge I am proposing is simple: get better at recognizing bullsh*t and acting appropriately when you spot it.

Research and learn about the subject

When you’re confronted with a new piece of information that looks suspicious (a framework, a “best practice”, a new likeable theory), spend some time researching the underlying evidence. Ask the author for help and engage in a discussion if he is willing to do so. Is there any proof? How does it relate to your situation? What gaps can you identify?

Make things actionable

When you hear a buzzword storm, be curious about action items. How do we act on this? What are the practical implications of what you’re saying? What can we do to try out what you are saying?

In long meetings or when someone advocates caution suggest the scientific method — design, run and evaluate an experiment — to move from talking about work to doing it and getting real data on the table.

Invite others to admit not knowing

Just like you are approaching potential bullsh*t statements from the stance of genuine curiosity and with a desire to learn more about the subject, invite others to also admit they don’t know instead of making up answers.

I have found out, through interviewing many people, that usually the direct approach works best here. So now I start many of the interviews with something along the lines of: “Although experience and theoretical knowledge is important, what is even more important is your willingness to admit you don’t know something and learn.” And people usually get it, so why don’t you try the same?

How do you identify and overcome B.S.? Tell us your tricks in the comments below!Blog Footer


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