I am certain of one thing: you are wrong

By: Stephen Marsh
October 7, 2010

How many times have you read that in a comment to post in the bloggernacle?  Much to your surprise, that is the one thing that is probably right. That is what I learned from studying facilitation.

I owe you some explanation of why that is, don’t I?  I’ll start with what facilitation is — facilitation is a method of resolving complex problems by reaching group acceptance by community problem solving and investigation. It is a developed discipline and a part of one of my two serious hobbies.  (Serious = one where I’ve been paid to teach post graduate classes or seminars and have published in the area and am still interested in it.  My two serious hobbies are dispute resolution and ethics).  As a part of engaging in complexity studies, I ended up being asked to review software that helps make facilitation initiatives easier by replacing the whiteboards, large pads of paper and chalkboards with computer screens.

While the software was interesting (and probably doomed, the field just isn’t large enough to support a major vendor and software package) what was important was the case studies.  Now usually good case studies with the details I am interested in don’t end up printed.  First, the process of rounds and rounds of discussion and analysis, all with temporary media that are often consumed in the process does not lend itself to good records.  Second, the process is generally confidential as to outsiders.  Third, an important part of facilitation is the new ground taking the place of the old ground, which means replacing the past with the agreed future.

But these studies included the raw data as organizations and groups came together and worked through to successful solutions — including all the proposals, all the discussions and how they moved along.  They were really more case records than case studies.

There was one thing every case record collection had in common.  No successful final solution was ever proposed in the first round of the initiative. No party ever had as a starting position the correct answer, so to speak.  The one thing I could be certain of in any complex situation was that all of the parties and all of the initial solutions were wrong.  That was amazing to me, and not something that you would glean from the abstract case studies that are out there.

As a result, any time I view a complex problem I am able to start with the conclusion that the only thing I am certain of is that all of the proposed solutions are probably wrong.  In case you are wondering, that obviously includes my initial impressions and my solutions that I am thinking of as well. Which is why I’m not so certain about any of the issues in the bloggernacle such as ordaining women, various marriage rights, undocumented workers and a plethora of other things.

What issues do you think you have solutions for, and on which of them, which are the ones where you think you might be wrong?

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41 Responses to I am certain of one thing: you are wrong

  1. Stephen Marsh on October 7, 2010 at 6:02 AM

    If you think this probably applies to most of the solutions proposed in the bloggernacle to most conflicts, you are probably right. So, I guess I can be certain that on some things, you are right as well ;)

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  2. Andrew S on October 7, 2010 at 6:20 AM

    Well, this post really had an unexpected twist (e.g., being about various issues discussed in the bloggernacle).

    I guess the next question would be: how do we know when we are moving away from initial solutions (which are wrong/not nuanced) and moving to better solutions?

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  3. Stephen Marsh on October 7, 2010 at 6:55 AM

    I’ll also note that the two heads of the Mennonite Conciliation Service spent a good deal of time on the gay/straight divide before deciding the issue was much less tractable than they had thought. That got my attention, not the effort, but the editorial they wrote concerning why they were giving up for a while.

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  4. Stephen Marsh on October 7, 2010 at 6:56 AM

    Andrew, that is a good question. I’d say you know you are making progress when you have abandoned all of the first round solutions.

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  5. Mike S on October 7, 2010 at 8:02 AM

    I like this concept and was really interested in the fact that all first-round solutions ended up being wrong.

    I don’t know that I have any “solutions” to problems in the bloggernacle, as what I think is probably wrong anyway. But, I have come to appreciate a much wider range of thoughts because of things I have read here. I have come to be able to simultaneously hold onto and appreciate two opposing viewpoints – much like an uncollapsed wave function. I think I’m probably less sure about many things.

    At the end of the day, however, it does beg the question about does it matter what we think are “solutions”? Given the strictly hierarchal nature of the Church, it is a very top-down organization. We can pick at things around the edges, and maybe go out there and have a “crazy” ward activity or something, but for substantial issues, I don’t know if it matters much on a practical basis.

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  6. AdamF on October 7, 2010 at 10:44 AM

    This relates to how I feel about homosexuality and the church. I decided that I really didn’t know what I thought in terms of how this or that SHOULD be, or what the solution should be, but only that I believe things now are definitely not okay. Honestly, I wish I did have some strong opinions about solutions… surety like that is easier to grasp and feel safe with. Not knowing is tough.

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  7. Paul on October 7, 2010 at 11:20 AM

    Stephen, you seem to make the assumption that only the “right” answer is chosen in the end. Is it possible that either solution in conflict resolution COULD be “correct” (effective) even if both sides disagree?

    Asked another way, in conflict resolution it seems so much of the issue is giving each side a way to participate in the discussion. I’m nor sure, based on your brief discussion, how to classify an answer as “wrong” other than the fact that it is not chosen.

    As for doctrinal and policy questions, I guess I come closer to Mike S that the hierarchy does seem to dictate “right” answers. This is especially true if we accept the divine calling of prophets who receive direction from God. That said, there is ample evidence that even in the senior counsels of the church there is discussion of various points of view before a decision is rendered, so perhaps the principles you discuss still apply, albeit outside the view of most of us.

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  8. hawkgrrrl on October 7, 2010 at 12:01 PM

    I had the same thought as Andrew when I read through this. The bloggernacle’s “solutions” (which is a hodge-podge of discussion and opinion at best) are a response to an existing “solution” and in some cases, solutions that have evolved over time (or in the case of doctrine been interpreted and reinterpreted). Frequently in the church, there’s a “solution” and then there are apologetics to justify the status quo viewpoint. The bloggernacle is, I suppose, the next step in that dialogue – either questioning or furthering the original solution or the assumptions behind the apologetics.

    Yet, I suppose Stephen is right in that the “best” solutions are probably not yet apparent at this phase of discussion. However, unless/until the church engages in some of those discussions (just reiterating status quo is not engaging), there’s no furthering solutions – just defensiveness of original positions. On BOTH sides.

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  9. Stephen M (Ethesis) on October 7, 2010 at 12:03 PM

    I think that with church leaders, the process of discussion, sermons, etc. is part of studying “t out in your mind” required before revelation is possible on a subject.

    As to “right” answers, those are answers that groups were willing to embrace and that resolved the conflict or problem.

    Wrong would be one that was not acceptable and that failed to resolve the conflict.

    The raw data was really interesting to see since in case studies the details are obscured a bit, made general, to protect privacy, and that results in hiding the specific detail I noticed. It really struck me.

    I think it is also why divine inspiration is important, though the inner leadership of the Church often works as if it were being facilitated. That is, they go round and round until they have worked out a position that no one opposes.

    I was on a board like that, mostly made of actuaries. If someone did not agree everyone stopped to solve the disagreement. We got some flack from state regulatory oversight groups for being unanimous until they started to realize that what we really had was a one person veto process.

    (In case you were wondering, it was an insurnace guarantee fund with hundreds of millions of dollars in assets. But the accountant and actuary types saw the board as problem solving and if someone had an objection to a solution, that obviously meant it wasn’t a solution).

    “if both sides disagree” — then the solution probably is not a solution, giving that it does not resolve the conflict and disagreement, if that makes sense.

    But I think the way the Blacks and the Priesthood question was resolved is a good example as it (a) was embraced by everyone at the top, (b) took a long time, (c) was embraced by the members with joy and (d) was obviously foreshadowed by God’s revelation to David O. McKay.

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  10. hawkgrrrl on October 7, 2010 at 12:03 PM

    What Adam is saying here resonates for me, as well. I participate in these discussions in the ‘nacle not because I have a solution but because there are some things that are inherently problematic and require modification. What that modification should be isn’t crystal clear to me, which is another reason I find it a little easier than some to cut the church slack. Clearcut solutions aren’t.

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  11. Stephen M (Ethesis) on October 7, 2010 at 12:06 PM

    Adam, I think the human need for surety is one of the strongest traps we face in meeting problems and resolving them.

    Especially as I learn and think more about duality, the thought that in the parable of the blind men and the elephant, the truth is that there is no elephant in many cases, means that the certainty is that there is not the kind of certainty we would be happy with.

    As to the specific issue you mention, I would be much happier if twin studies were more conclusive. That is, instead of a weak correlation (which indicates a biologic input) there was a stronger one on the order of .81 r^2 or so (which would indicate a biologic mandate).

    Again, that is me looking for certainty.

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  12. Jeff Spector on October 7, 2010 at 12:06 PM

    I think I have the same problem. I want to be true to the principles but I also think some fairness and kindness is also in order. I think it may be possible to hold a strong opinion but not be cruel. On the other hand, some folks view any contrary opinion as an attack. that’s what makes this hard.

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  13. Jeff Spector on October 7, 2010 at 12:07 PM

    Good post, kind of like my “Your Opinion is Wrong” piece….

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  14. Stephen M (Ethesis) on October 7, 2010 at 12:09 PM

    Which is why the internal processes are so important. What would make a great post is how to affect internal processes in a positive way rather than an adverse way.

    What makes for successful advocacy of a position and what makes for a failure. But what we often have is approaches that reduce or delay movement rather than increase it.

    What I meant by bloggernacle solutions are the sorts of things that people write about as if they would solve an issue. My thought is that what we shall become, what will succeed, is not so readily apparent, other than we need to be more like Christ.

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  15. Stephen M (Ethesis) on October 7, 2010 at 12:26 PM

    Jeff, post a link to your piece.

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  16. brjones on October 7, 2010 at 12:29 PM

    This is an interesting aspect of this discussion – the idea of what “right” and “wrong” really mean. I suspect that ultimately, as Stephen pointed out, the only meaning you can really attach to the word “wrong” is that it was a solution that was not accepted. Obviously, though, it is conceivable, likely even, that often one side’s proposed solution may actually be superior to the other side’s, and may even be superior or more effective than the eventual “right” solution. Often these processes of moving toward the “right” solution are really about negotiation and compromise, and often the agreed upon solution is not remotely the best solution to the problem at hand, but merely the solution that each side finds least repugnant to its respective position. One can even conceive of a situation where each side’s initial solution is superior to the watered down solution that is eventually agreed upon. So is consensus necessarily the most effective way of problem-solving? I have to admit that when thinking about this I tend to view it in the context of national politics as opposed to the church hierarchy.

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  17. brjones on October 7, 2010 at 12:32 PM

    You had me at “siren song,” Hawk.

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  18. Paul on October 7, 2010 at 12:45 PM

    Stephen, I appreciate your final paragraph in this comment. I think there’s great value in remembering the process that leads to revelation (as opposed to “truth”‘s being delivered from on high like this morning’s eggs).

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  19. jmb275 on October 7, 2010 at 12:48 PM

    Interesting Stephen. Here’s my question: what is the metric for gauging the solution? For example, suppose we assume one of the initial solutions is wrong (which we should do based on the likelihood), but then someone returns to that solution and presents it again later? Do we still assume it’s wrong, or is it now more right since we’ve been through numerous iterations?

    It seems more pure to me if a solution’s “goodness” is independent of time, and space, and only a function of its intrinsic value. If so, and the right solution is proposed in the first iteration we will reject on likelihood. How do we deal with this? We can’t prove optimality in this instance.

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  20. jmb275 on October 7, 2010 at 12:56 PM

    This is exactly my thought as well. Personally, I think this stems from our inability to fully articulate our world of variance. Perhaps this is a problem with comprehension of our language, or its inability to properly articulate things. I think mathematics goes some distance in addressing this, but then it also runs into difficulties down the line.

    All encompassing philosophies don’t, and benevolent plans of salvation aren’t. Every time I am introduced to a new framework of thinking, or some all inclusive philosophy, I am wont to poke the holes in it (which always exist if you push hard enough).

    …hold on for String Theory though!!

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  21. jmb275 on October 7, 2010 at 1:03 PM

    Hmmm, I didn’t read all the comments before I posted. So it does seem as though a solution’s “goodness” IS in fact based on when it is introduced. If the metric is acceptance, then that leaves room for people to be “talked into” the solution.

    Of course this makes the solution a moving target and really more a function of the mindset of the people involved rather than the solution itself. This seems very antithetical to a religious philosophy that insists on absolute truths and morals. What do we make of this?

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  22. hawkgrrrl on October 7, 2010 at 1:33 PM

    Ah, and I think I tend to blog as a facilitator also (I do a lot of that professionally as well) – pointing out the problem solving issues rather than advocating a specific stance. Although I will take a stand on basics.

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  23. hawkgrrrl on October 7, 2010 at 1:41 PM

    There are a couple of points here worth further consideration:
    1 – if a solution is rejected, is that because it was untenable or “wrong”? I think that is usually the case – over time.
    2 – if a solution is a compromise rather than a higher/better alternative that differs from all original premises, does that mean it is weak? Again, I think this is the case over time. Compromise tends to be a watering down, but I do believe (not to go all Stephen Covey here) that the best solutions are synergistic third alternatives that neither group would have created independently.
    3 – I used to think bi-partisan politics were the root of all our problems, but I believe now that it’s critical to creating better solutions. Mormonism needs more diversity in thinking, even just to be more deliberate in considering alternate viewpoints and gathering input from less represented thinkers (e.g. women for starters, other denominations, etc.).

    I have been reading an excellent book called Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error. One of the things it says is that in order to avoid error, we must first embrace it. IOW, the only way to avoid error is to believe ourselves to be fallible and to seek to prove our assumptions wrong.

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  24. hawkgrrrl on October 7, 2010 at 1:43 PM


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  25. hawkgrrrl on October 7, 2010 at 1:46 PM

    What I make of this is that the process describes human understanding. All problem solving (including revelation) is a process of understanding “right.” And we don’t initially understand things fully. Only through a process of questioning and reframing do we fully understand a matter. Like peeling an onion, when dealing with moral “truth” we often find that each layer reveals another layer. These layers are like pendulum swings (IMO) – moving in either direction. An idea and its opposite are often both “true” and both “not true.”

    I feel like I’m being enigmatic, but it’s unintentional.

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  26. Stephen M (Ethesis) on October 7, 2010 at 3:22 PM

    Well, it is the nature of complex issues to not have obvious solutions.

    If a solution surfaces later, and seems that it will work, I would suggest that (a) random chance can produce that result, (b) the problem may have changed by being analyzed, and (c) the problem may not have been as complex as it looked.

    I don’t rule out accidentally encountering a solution in the first iteration, just like lots of random things happen. I also don’t rule out issues being non-complex and thus having easier solutions to reach.

    However, and as important, some problems change from being examined, and that can make a solution that looks the same, no longer be the same.

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  27. Stephen M (Ethesis) on October 7, 2010 at 3:24 PM

    Thanks. In the modern era there are many examples of God telling people, over and over again, that in the normal process revelation was a process we had to work at rather than a final state delivery.

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  28. hawkgrrrl on October 7, 2010 at 3:53 PM

    I like to think that the ‘nacle is a place where we further that exploration. I think too often the polarized thinking some promote within the church starts and ends with the premise/solution, and results in defending the indefensible and outdoing one another in our unquestioning defense of things we may not even fully comprehend. The body count is acceptable to those who engage in holy wars.

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  29. Jeff Spector on October 7, 2010 at 4:25 PM
  30. Bored in Vernal on October 7, 2010 at 6:12 PM

    YAY!! brjones is here!
    (good to see ya.)

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  31. Stephen Marsh on October 7, 2010 at 8:19 PM

    I’m glad to see brjones here.

    You are right, generally what people find are synergies that were unexpected. Sometimes it is merely a path to acceptance, but often it is a re-balancing and a reorientation that occurs. I need to take a look at the book Hawk has said she is reading, sounds interesting.

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  32. Wyoming on October 7, 2010 at 9:26 PM

    Much of my work is in the area of cognitive biases as they relate to strategy development. Once clients understand typical biases, they understand the root cause of strategic/project failure.

    “One of the most liberating leadership principles is, I don’t have to be right”. – John Naisbitt

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  33. Corktree on October 7, 2010 at 9:37 PM

    Your third point reminds me of a study that highlights the genetics of politics. I probably read about it on the ‘nacle at some point, but it’s fascinating. It says that we’re hardwired to vote a certain way, and that natural variance leads to necessary diversity that allows for the *real* solutions to be found, because evolution favors compromise and recombination.

    I’ve always stayed out of most of the discussions that revolve around the unsolved issues – mostly because in a way, I was afraid of taking a stand prematurely and then needing to alter my position down the road. Maybe it wasn’t just my fear of being wrong, but an acknowledgment of futility in choosing sides this round. ;) I’d like to think that’s the reason and not just weakness on my part.

    Is there value in planting your foot on one side or the other, or should we focus on more open discussions before drawing the lines? I’m almost always pretty equally in the middle of any issue worth arguing, so my opinion and position ends up being pretty bland.

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  34. Stephen Marsh on October 8, 2010 at 6:39 AM

    That is a good point.

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  35. Stephen Marsh on October 8, 2010 at 6:40 AM

    Cognitive bias is something they should teach in high school. A unit on something like the book _Mistakes were made, but not by me_ would do many kids more good than much of what they get.

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  36. Gus on October 8, 2010 at 10:42 PM

    I’ve long been fascinated with “wicked” problems.

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  37. Jon Miranda on October 9, 2010 at 2:51 PM

    I don’t know if saying you are wrong is necessarily a bad thing. If someone came to me saying that he wanted to drown his kittens, I would say YOU ARE WRONG.

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  38. hawkgrrrl on October 9, 2010 at 2:58 PM

    The kittens would certainly agree.

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  39. SUNNofaB.C.Rich on October 10, 2010 at 11:12 PM

    What if the kittens exhibited behavior that legitimately threatened to snuff out the existence of all living inhabitants of the world?

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  40. truly not yours on October 24, 2010 at 6:16 PM

    I am certain of one thing: Stephen is a [intemperate statement from Stephen's personal popcorn popping troll]. Moderated for obscenity and lack of social grace.

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