I give advice for a living.

Sometimes my clients take my advice, which is gratifying. When they do, it usually seems to help them, which is even more gratifying.

But in spite of my awesome powers of persuasion, there are those clients who ignore or reject what I … a Recognized Industry Pundit (RIP) … have to offer.

The question this week: Should my clients always take my advice (Yes!), or, more broadly, why don’t people take the advice of the experts they hire for their expertise (long answer follows)?

Some correspondents asked this question in the context of my daughter Kimberly’s experience working with me as a client, where I … well, I didn’t reject her advice entirely but did accept only a modified, more frugal version of it, which resulted in unwanted delays and expenses.

Their question: How is it that I of all people didn’t take the advice of my contracted expert on the subject? Was this a well-deserved case of petard hoisting?

There are two possible answers. The first is that it wasn’t — it was a matter of risk management and its consequences. The second is that risk management my eye — of course I was hoist on my own petard, but like everyone else, your loyal author is a master of the art of rationalization.

I’m pretty sure it was risk management. Just in case you don’t already know this, you have four possible responses to risk. You can:

  • Prevent (aka Avoid) — reduce the odds of risk turning into reality.
  • Mitigate — reduce the damage if it does.
  • Insure — share the expense if the bad thing happens.
  • Accept — live with the consequences of failing to prevent, mitigate, or insure.

I chose to accept the possibility that an inexpensive WordPress theme might not do the job, resulting in delays and additional expenses, and I didn’t complain when that’s how things turned out.

Which brings us back to the question: When you pay an expert for advice, why wouldn’t you take it?

Here’s why:

We just explored one answer. Experts for hire know from hard experience that when something bad happens, relatively few executives remember (or, more accurately, admit) they chose to accept a risk and its consequences. That being the case, most experts, as a matter of self-protection, will usually advocate for the lowest-risk alternative.

Here’s another: Consultants are professional fault-finders. This being the case, we’re prone to fixing what’s broken by breaking what’s fixed. It’s our professional blind spot, reinforced by our habit of introducing metrics that demonstrate improvement, but not corresponding metrics that document any breakage.

Next up is a distressingly common and entirely illegitimate reason to reject a paid expert’s advice: Often, an executive or manager will engage an industry expert and immediately give the expert their preferred answer.

Some paid experts cater to this market, happily reading their sponsor’s script and cashing their check with a clear conscience. The customer is always right after all, and our job is to make our customers happy.

The only real value this advice has is political. It provides ammunition, not insight.

But there’s another, entirely legitimate reason for not accepting an expert’s advice that can be hard to distinguish from script management.

It’s that no matter how careful and thorough everyone involved is in the process, there may be matters of context that affect how well a consultant’s advice fits the specific situation.

This is one reason assertions of “best practice” should induce wariness: Few so-called best practices are contextual. They aren’t, that is, practices that fit best. Recommendations should start by accurately describing your situation and the nuances and constraints that shaped them.

What’s hardest for you is self-awareness — seeing the very blurry line separating your superior understanding of context and nuances from your confirmation bias, and staying on the right side of that line.

Where your self-awareness should kick in is when you find yourself explaining what you think the recommendations should have been before you invest time and effort understanding the recommendations you paid for.

On the other hand it’s entirely legitimate, after you understand the experts’¬†recommendations, to ask if they explored an alternative you think is a promising possibility; if so what they concluded and why; if not, why not.

Which is to say, as is the case with so many other situations, yes and no are the two worst responses available to you.

The best response (no, not the best-practice response) is an open-minded conversation.

Or as Michael Shermer, publisher of Skeptic once said, “The rub … is finding that balance between being open-minded enough to accept radical new ideas but not so open-minded that your brains fall out.”

In response to my recent plugging of my daughter’s nascent contract programming business and my reference to the POTUS’ Twittering support of his own daughter’s business to justify it, a long time subscriber and correspondent wrote, “I am SICK TO DEATH of the politicization of EVERYTHING. Strike two, I unsubscribe next time.”

Huh. I thought I’d indulged in nothing more than a harmless wisecrack, and in fact, unlike various recent Oscar winners, I’ve restrained myself from political commentary in KJR in spite of near-daily temptations.

And, let me cast my vote in the same direction: I’m also sick to death of the politicization of everything, although I doubt my correspondent and I mean the same thing when we say it.

Which brings us to this week’s anti-politicized topic: dealing with politicization in the organization you work in.

But first, let’s be clear about what “politicized” means.

At the easiest-to-deal-with level, politicization means talking about politics in the office. It’s easy to deal with because given the current public political climate it’s an awful idea. Nothing good can come from it ‚Ķ no one will persuade anyone who isn’t already on their side of a given issue and there’s no need to persuade someone who already is.

Either way the most likely outcome of a political conversation is inflammation for all conversing parties, who all also risk damaging their personal relationships with the each other party in the bargain.

At the next level, politicization is a synonym for tribalism: Dividing the world into us and them and viewing them, not as opponents, but as enemies. In the public sphere this is what has made our political climate so toxic. In the enterprise it’s one of the root causes of organizational silos with high walls and minimal collaboration.

Worse is that tribalism almost invariably escalates, as each side views hostile behavior on the other’s part through a magnifying lens, calling for an even-more amplified response.

It’s my impression that silo-driven attitudes and behavior are, as a broad trend, becoming worse in most enterprises, although, as there is no good measure of organizational silo height I can’t prove the point. Nonetheless, whatever the trend line, politicized organizations in this sense of the word handicap themselves when competing with their more cognitive counterparts.

But not as badly as organizations that take politicization to the next level. Call it political epistemology.

Epistemology — the study of what it means to “know” something — is, in addition to being eye-glazingly opaque, quite frustrating to deal with. Peel the epistemological onion and you’ll reach two equally unsatisfying conclusions: (1) It is sensible to be more confident of some propositions than others, based on the comparative levels of evidence and logic in their favor. But (2) it isn’t sensible to be completely certain of any proposition, with the possible exception of the proposition that certainty isn’t possible.

Political epistemology is what happens when what to believe and how certain to be of it depends on an individual’s tribal inclinations.

Never mind public policy and how someone’s party affiliation shapes their beliefs about What Works. There are plenty of business examples right in front of you, from decisions about strategy, to IT’s choice of virtualization technology, to which PaaS provider is best, and whether to deploy its technology stack inside the corporate firewall or to contract for external hosting.

No, no, no, no, no. I’m not saying Democrats favor private clouds while Republicans prefer public ones. Among the metaphorical breakdowns here: Businesses tend to have more than just two major metaphorical political parties. Heck, IT tends to have more than just two, with many IT professionals enjoying at least dual citizenship besides, with such fracture lines as Windows vs Linux, COTS (commercial off-the-shelf) vs open source, Waterfall vs Agile, and Engineering-and-Architecture vs Management-and-Finance.

The hazard doesn’t come from individuals having these inclinations. They’re natural and probably inevitable.

No, the hazard comes from the close-minded certainty that starts with “my tribe is good, my tribe’s allies are good enough, and every other tribe is deluded and evil” and finishes with the by now commonplace phrase “confirmation bias,” which means, if you’re among the uninitiated, that people uncritically accept any and all inputs that affirm their pre-existing beliefs while nit-picking to death anything that appears to contradict them.

Is Keep the Joint Running becoming politicized? As the poet Robert Burns wrote,

O wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!
It wad frae mony a blunder free us,
An’ foolish notion

Which is to say, you’ll have to tell me.