Sunday, April 22, 2012


Last time, we covered how to analyze the two main things we talk about at work (the way things are, and the way they should be) and I gave the methods for analyzing those questions that were written down by Aristotle 2500 years ago. I promised that this time we would talk about how to resolve the two “subtype” claims – those of quality and those of definition. Let’s do it.

Claims of quality (also called claims of value) are, not surprisingly, claims that attempt to attribute a quality or a value to something. When we refer to things as being “good”, “best”, “healthy”, “kinky”, “large”, “difficult”, “worst”, “regrettable”, and so on,  we are attributing a quality that has either a) a non-specific or relative meaning, or b) a meaning that is not easily definable on its own. When we refer to a car as “large”, for instance, what do we mean? How big is a large car? A test that I use for this kind of thing is a test of universality. That is, if I hear a claim and think that in the context it was made that anybody would get more or less the same picture in their mind, then I don’t make much of an analysis. On the other hand, if the claim is subjective and I think it is important for all the parties to have a clear understanding of exactly what is meant, I begin to ask clarifying questions.

The first question is – “Which value should be used to evaluate the subject?”

A claim of value might state that “Quality is more important than on-time delivery”. The phrase “more important” is the “value” phrase here. It could be “more difficult” or “more profitable”. The point is that it is a phrase that has a clear meaning to me, but maybe not the SAME meaning to everyone. So we need to question what is meant by “more important”. Is it more important to the customer? To us? And HOW is it more important - in what way? To the customer’s desire to do business with us? To their ability to be profitable? To our need to meet certain contract requirements? We would hopefully be able to come up with a statement like “Quality is critical to our customer because they don’t have equipment to do rework. It would be better to be late and of good quality than on-time and need to be returned"

This statement still has a problem; it says “it would be better…” which is another claim of value. We would like to have a standard to which we can measure that value. Therefore…

The second question is – “What standards are used to measure competing values?” Are we comparing this to customer needs? Industry norms? Military Standards? Our own business restrictions?

We may ask the customer for a guideline in our case statement. Let’s say that we tell them that we need a guideline to help us with these decisions if we are faced with a minor quality discrepancy, how much time would you be willing to risk? Let’s say they answer “Five days. It would be better for a shipment to be five or fewer days late and be of good quality than for us to have to find a local supplier to do the rework for us”. Now we have a customer supplied guideline. We could revise the statement to say “Quality is critical to our customer because they don’t have equipment to do rework. We may ship up to five days late if it means they receive quality goods”.

After the second question, we have transformed our claim of value into a claim of fact. We can therefore test it the same way – now that we have a standard, we ask if that standard was met. Therefore…

The third question is – “Have those standards been met?” Whatever standards we settled on at the second question must be measurable to the degree that we can settle the question. In our test case, we ask if we meet the five day window or not.

A claim of definition is one in which a word is associated to a definition. You think this is not complex, but it is at the center of argumentation. Developing definitions is CENTRAL to controlling the flow of a discussion and much time is spent in developing evidence to support them.

To resolve a claim of definition, we follow the same strategy (convert it to a claim of fact) but with different questions.

The first question we ask about a claim of definition is “Is it relevant if the term is defined?” If it doesn’t matter, then let it pass. If we need to know what it means, then this is a CRITICALLY important question. If we say “Capital Punishment is murder”, then we are saying that capital punishments is illegal (‘murder’ indicates a life taken unlawfully). If we say “Capital Punishment is killing, and killing is wrong”, then we are offering a moral rather than legal definition but we have to then support attacks on our position like “is it wrong for a soldier to kill? Or in self defense? Because if it is alright to kill in those cases, then not ALL killing is wrong. And isn’t capital punishment more like societal self-defense?” as I said, definition (and learning how to RE-define things in an argument) are critical when it comes to persuasion.

The second question we ask is “Is the definition fair?” That is, does it represent a biased point of view or not? Sometimes we might not like the definition, but if it is unbiased we need to consider it. For instance, in the case of “the product is ready to launch”, we may be listening to an engineer who means that “the design is complete” or a marketing manager describing that “the campaign is designed”. Both of these could be true, but the bias may lead us to believe that more has been done than truly has been.

The third question we ask is “How do we choose between competing definitions?” You say the product is ready to launch, and I say it’s not. How do we choose? We may suggest that we defer to an authoritative source like a Systems Engineering definition, or a Project Management definition, or just a dictionary if it applies. We may agree that we need some criteria that define what “product launch” means to us. We may defer to the definition that the company president uses. Maybe we’ll ask our customers what would constitute readiness, like “is the training ready yet?” Whatever method we use to make the choice, the choice needs to be made.

Again, we are converting the claim of definition to a claim of fact by asking these questions, and testing it by asking for evidence.

Oh, yeah – evidence. This week, all I want you to ponder about evidence is that there are only kinds of evidence. Ever.

1 – Credibility: The person making the statement is credible, and because they are, we accept what they tell us.

2 – Objective Evidence: This is something we can examine or review like something tangible or testimony.

3 – Social Consensus – This is something we all agree to. If we don’t agree to it, then we have to find one of the other two kinds of evidence to support it. Think about a statement like “Democracy is better than Tyranny”. We accept it at face value because we all agree with it.

Since there are just three kinds of evidence, I will get through them all next time AND be able to describe how you rate the strength of a specific piece of evidence.

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