The smart people outside the room
28 February, 2013
The smart people outside the room is a group increasingly discussed around the world by the smart people in the room. The smarter the people in the room the more they discuss the smart people outside the room. It comes from concept that is now almost a new proverb. Imagine a group of smart people sitting in a room deciding or designing something, making
a plan or product. "there are more smart people outside this room than inside it" In a very real and profound sense that is always true no matter how many people are in the room and how smart they are. The question is do we want to do anything about that fact?

The first problem is that some smart people in the room don't think that there are smart people outside the room. They believe they are so smart that they have whatever it is, completely figured out and nobody else can give them a better idea than they already have. This type of person simply won't understand the concept because they are so sure they have all the answers. The second problem is that maybe people don't trust those outside the room. They think there are too many opponents and those who are against them will only try to sabotage the plan or design. So sure there are lots of smart people but we can't trust them.

The third problem is until recently it was very difficult to identify those smart people outside the room. Now it is not. Communication is so easy via the internet and mobile phones that people interested in being involved in the plan or design can be reached in an instant. So although now it is easy to ask a question of the general public, there are those that are simply used to not doing it. The forth problem is embarrassment. Some people in the room may feel that if they ask for an opinion about what they are supposed to do, it will appear as weakness or that they don't know what they are doing. I remember many years ago when I moved to Georgia in the nineties, people constantly talked about a lack of professionalism. I didn't really understand what that meant for a long time but finally I learned it meant when somebody was given a job they didn't know how to do. They would simply pretend, go through the motions. So in many cases if a person or group is told to figure something out and they ask for ideas, some will think they are showing that they don't know how to do it. Not asking for ideas or advice is the real sign of weakness, but some people feel the opposite.

At the same time writing can be a real barrier. Being able to express what you want in writing is not easy. It may be that a group is happy to ask the public for ideas about a particular issue but the way they express it is so long and convoluted that nobody even bothers to get to the end to try to figure out what they want. A real request for ideas or advice needs to be short and simple and kept broad. You can particularly see that in the creation of laws or amendments to laws. People feel that there is a problem that needs a solution in law, and all of a sudden there are two or three drafts floating around and nobody know which is the operative one and they are so long and complicated that nobody gets the real point or differences. Any law is 95% wording that must be there to fit in with other laws. The important stuff is hidden by all the legal language and harmonization. A much better way to start is a simple statement of the principal that the new law or amendment is trying to address. When that has gotten some discussion and input and can be evaluated, and maybe there is even some consensus, only then should the actual drafting of the law or amendment begin.

Sometimes the people in the room are in a hurry. Or they have been told to hurry. Or they pretend they are in a hurry. They don't have time to ask for ideas from outside. Or at least that is what they tell themselves. And there are fakers; usually those who talk about stakeholders. Stakeholders are people that a donor is supposed to listen to but in reality they don't in my experience really care what they say, but they have to have a report that says they listened to them. Rarely are they given enough information to really know what they are being asked about. To get good ideas or any help from the smart people outside the room, whoever is in the room and is asking must be ready to take on those new ideas. When people use the term stakeholders, at the point at which the stakeholder meeting takes place, all the important decisions have already been taken, again at least in my experience.

So as you can see there are plenty of reasons the people in the room will just decide that they themselves are smarter than everybody else outside the room and will go ahead and make the decision, plan, or design on their own, with no real discussion. But there are some very good reasons to ask advice from anybody who wants to give it. Here are some reasons: people will like the final outcome more because they will believe they had a hand in its design. People like to be asked for advice. And also the final outcome will actually be better than whatever the outcome would have been of just the people in the room. This is already starting to happen much more now than it did over the last nine years. Let's home this continues and becomes a habit.