Argumentocracy

"David," I told an old colleague a few weeks back, "I won an argument that I should have lost."

Our argument was about Adobe Flash and it took place in 2009 and 2010. Charged with creating a user-centric vision for our engineering team, I argued for using Adobe's Flex toolkit. Flex promised greater developer productivity when compared with JavaScript as well as a native-like UI feel. Everyone had Flash installed, and so the objections seemed foolish to me. David argued that, according to his research, developers were writing UIs in Javascript. The launch of the iPad, which happened in the midst of the argument, strengthened the opposition to Flash. David wasn't the only one who felt that way. Several folks agreed with him but didn't fight aggressively. But, as the "UI guy", I won the argument by default.

Five years later, it's quite clear that we would have been better off if I'd listened to David. Certainly some hindsight bias is in play here. Before it launched, we actually didn't know that the iPad would succeed or that Flash would become irrelevant so quickly. But it's worth noting that my arguments in favor of Flash really didn't work out. We weren't especially productive writing our Flash UI. JavaScript development wasn't nearly as hard as I expected, once I forced myself to learn.

Even in the most meritocratic of environments, ideas win not based on their merit but based on the quality of arguments used to advance those ideas. And sometimes ideas win based on the caliber of the arguer.

That experience scares me. It isn't enough for me to win an argument. My job is ultimately to reach the best outcome, even if my arguments need to lose for that to happen. Fighting for the best outcome means that I need to encourage arguments that I might disagree with.

I saw a similar situation at work recently. Two people were arguing over project priorities. The person who backed down first lost the argument even though, in my opinion, that person had the better argument. Backing down had little to do with conceding the superiority of the opponent's point. One arguer was simply more skilled at debating than the other. The other, meanwhile, didn't derive any joy from continuing to fight.

I wish there were some system or trick for arguments to win on their merits. But, since there isn't, it falls on the arguers to know their strengths and weaknesses and to adjust to them. Strong arguers need to be careful that their confidence and argumentative skill don't lead to their winning arguments that they should lose. Weak arguers, meanwhile, need to get better lest they never contribute to their full potential.

comments powered by Disqus