I took the weekend off. While this week’s piece is a fourteen-year-old re-run, I don’t think it’s showing its age very much.

Although I very much wish it was.

– Bob

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The Declaration of Independence and Constitution of the United States — our two most important founding documents — are remarkably secular. Rebukes to English governance, which claimed its legitimacy from God through the divine right of kings, they state with complete clarity that the legitimacy of governments is obtained, not from Heaven, but from the consent of the governed.

The words are clear and accessible to anyone who is at all literate and has the patience to read them. That this was the consensus of this nation’s founders is not in serious doubt.

Also not in serious doubt is the respect our nation’s founders had for consensus itself, perhaps because it is the purest form of the governed’s consent. In each case they spent a very long time discussing and debating what they should think and how that thinking should be expressed; also in each case, different factions compromised to reach the final decisions. Both documents were results with which each group and faction might not completely agree, but to which they could and did completely commit.

It’s become popular to consider the Constitution’s framers as selfish, wealthy, racist landowners interested solely in preserving their status. But this oversimplifies the complexity of their circumstances. When they led the Revolutionary War, they had quite literally risked their lives and fortunes to gain independence from England. Their sincerity of purpose in creating a resilient nation seems more likely than otherwise.

As for slavery, it is beyond doubt that many of the framers abhorred it (many with more moral courage than, for example, Jefferson, who abhorred slavery in principle but not so strongly as to suffer the personal inconveniences to be experienced from its elimination). The Constitution’s allowance of slavery demonstrates the nature of consensus better than any of its other features: Even those who hated it the most valued preservation of the nation even more. They understood, perfectly, the need to give way on some points — even those held very strongly — to achieve the larger result.

Consensus is falling out of fashion in leadership circles these days, and we’re the poorer for it. Three reasons seem to dominate this shift, all the result of too-limited understanding of the subject:

  • Wrong definition: Consensus is the form of decision-making in which a group might not fully agree with the final decision, but does commit to the final decision specifically because it is the decision of the group. It is not what some detractors call consensus — a process in which a group argues until it gives lip service to a decision which those who approve adhere to and those who don’t feel free to ignore.
  • Wrong priority: Achieving consensus is not a quick process. To those who participated, the Constitutional Convention seemed eternal; it did, in fact, require almost four months.Consensus is the wrong process to be used when speed is essential. Conversely, speed is sometimes the wrong priority for leaders to choose — there are many times when commitment is more important than velocity. In business, excessive speed can lead to undesirable results, among them “leaders” who leave those who are supposed to be following too far behind them; and leaders able to win every battle while fighting the wrong war.Metaphorically speaking.
  • Wrong technique: Voting is the process where everyone argues, and then tallies up preferences so that the majority wins and the rest lose. Consensus requires an expectation that everyone involved has to give way on some points. It also requires that all concerned do more than allow others to speak while they formulate their rebuttals. It requires actual listening — working to understand the other person’s point of view. That, in turn requires patience, an art practiced extensively by those who participated in our nation’s founding, as the prevalent style of speaking at the time was both windier and more formal than what we practice today.

In general, consensus results in more commitment, but to a relatively poor quality result. Because consensus requires compromise, this generality can’t be entirely avoided. But listening — recognizing that others have wisdom as well — can offset the effects of compromise, making the final result better than what any single individual can achieve.

It’s been said that no committee ever painted the Mona Lisa. That is, of course, true. It’s also true, though, that it was a committee that wrote the Constitution of the United States — a document that is, in its own way, as much a work of art as anything ever created.

“I’m just giving you a brain dump.”

Please don’t. Not to me, not to your colleagues, and especially, no matter how dire the circumstances, not to your manager.

Start with the prevalent but inaccurate distinction between data and information. Data are, supposedly, meaningless until processed into meaningful and useful information.

Not to nitpick or nuthin’ but “information” already had a definition before this one came along. It comes, appropriately enough, from information theory, which defines information as the stuff that reduces uncertainty.

As long as we’re being annoyingly pedantic, far from being worthless, data consist of indisputable facts: A datum is a measurement of some attribute of some identifiable thing, taking measurement in its broadest sense — if you observe and record the color of a piece of fruit, “orange” is a measurement.

So a fact can, in fact (sorry) reduce your uncertainty, as in the case where someone has asserted that something is impossible. If you observe and document it happening even once, you’ve reduced everyone’s uncertainty about whether the phenomenon in question is possible or not.

As long as we’re being metaphysical, let’s add one more layer: Meaning isn’t something information confers. Meaning is a property of knowledge — something a person develops, over time, by interpreting their experience, which is a combination of raw data, information, and logic, and, if we’re being honest with ourselves, no shortage of illogic as well.

(If, astonishingly, you’re interested, Scott Lee and I covered this topic in more depth in The Cognitive Enterprise.)

Back to brain dumps. You might think the problem is that the dumper is providing data, not information. Au contraire, mes amis. In my experience, brain dumps contain precious little data. They are, instead, a disorganized jumble that does include some information, interspersed with anecdotes, opinions of varying degrees of reliability (the brain-dumper would consider these to be knowledge), and ideas, which, as we’re being definitional, we might think of as hypotheses only without the supporting logic that makes good hypotheses worth testing.

And so, now that I’ve thoroughly buried the lede, the reason brain dumping is generally worse than useless is that it’s an exercise in reverse delegation.

Brain dumps happen when one person asks another person to figure something out and then explain it so they’ll both be smarter about the subject at hand.

But instead of making the delegator smarter, the brain-dumper has instead de-delegated the hard work of organizing these bits and pieces into a clear and coherent narrative.

It’s as if I were to assign you responsibility for baking a cake, and to satisfy the assignment, instead of returning with my just desserts, you were to dump a bunch of raw foodstuffs on my desk, some of which might be useful as cake ingredients and others not, along with 23 recipes for pies and cakes, plus commentary about how eating too much sugar causes cavities and adult-onset diabetes.

When receiving end a brain dump I often conclude the dumper has lost track of the explanation’s purpose. Instead of trying to make me smarter about a subject, the presenter is, instead, trying to show me how smart he or she is.

But it’s more likely I’ll reach the opposite conclusion, due to one of Einstein’s dicta: “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”

Bad meta-message.

How can someone keep themselves from becoming a brain-dumper? Here’s one approach: Start by carefully choosing an entry point.

Imagine I’m supposed to explain something to you. Presumably I know quite a lot about the subject at hand or you wouldn’t ask. I know so much, in fact (this is, you understand, hypothetical) that I can’t explain anything I know about it until you understand everything I know about it.

And as you won’t be able to understand anything I have to say about it until you’ve heard everything I have to say about it, my only choice is to dump the contents of my brain onto your desk.

But if I choose a good entry point I’ll be starting my explanation with something about the subject you can understand immediately, like, “We have a problem. Here’s what it is, and why you should be concerned about it.”

Then comes the second-hardest part: Leaving out everything you know about the subject, except what helps explain what the problem is and why your listener should be concerned about it.

Leaving out any of my precious knowledge out hurts.

But that’s better than the pain I’d inflict by leaving it in.