Harnessing Bias and Ignorance: An Argument for a Diversity of Perspectives towards Better Collaboration

A Chinese philosopher once proposed that “the participant’s perspectives are clouded while the bystander’s views are clear.” (Unknown) This simple observation captures the core purpose of conducting interdisciplinary research; to leverage unique perspectives towards creating new knowledge at a necessary ever faster pace. However, perception can also be detrimental to research – our past experiences obscuring the implications of evidence perhaps clear to someone else (Chalmers, 1999, p. 7). By discussing the problems and benefits of perceptual bias, different types of expertise, and the notion of triangulation (INTEG220, 2011, p. Oct 27), I will show how an interdisciplinary approach to research can be used to overcome debilitating perceptual biases and how perceptual bias can be positively harnessed.

 
Priming is a phenomenon where previous knowledge skews our perception of reality. Bias is introduced in everything we observe because we are primed by previous experiences (Chalmers, 1999, p. 9), and often, the epistemological framework associated with a discipline. Nothing may be observed in perfect isolation and with complete objectivity. The philosophers Duhem and Quine contest it is impossible to test a single scientific hypothesis in isolation because any given hypothesis relies on background assumptions – other foundational hypothesis (INTEG220, 2011, p. Oct 13). Similarly, any observation also relies on background assumptions – other foundational observations which ultimately came to form an individual’s current state of knowledge. To consider or evaluate an observation in isolation without also considering the background assumptions that enabled or skewed the observation would unearth problems parallel to Popperian falsificationism of hypotheses. Popper’s falsificationism contests it is possible to refute a hypothesis in isolation provided the hypothesis is written in a testable manner, and has largely been superseded by theories that acknowledge the interconnected and multidimensional nature of scientific theories (INTEG220, 2011, p. Oct 13). It is this ‘skewing’ of an observation by background observations or knowledge that creates perceptual bias (Chalmers, 1999, p. 12); it is the sum of our perceptual biases which form our conceptual scheme – a subtly unique perspective formed by our environment, education and upbringing that permeates into our perception of the world (Brodie, 2011). Within the context of a discipline, the set of conceptual schemes carried by members of the community likely will form the discipline’s epistemological framework, or the methods by which the discipline acquires new knowledge.

 
A fundamental goal of science is to attain objectivity; to discover what actually is, what actually occurs. (INTEG220, 2011, p. Oct 27) If even observations – never mind analysis – are fundamentally prone to bias, how can we return to some semblance of objectivity? It seems considering an observation from multiple perspectives would be inherently valuable – perhaps to arrive at a mean in the set possibilities, or perhaps to simply have a path to a larger dataset on which to perform analysis. Someone who could temporarily suspend their own context and replace it with another would achieve some form of this – what we might refer to as ‘walking a mile in another’s shoes’ is a powerful tool. But to purposefully decide to switch contexts remains a cognitive decision, still limited by a fundamental bias-skewing observation. Will someone who is colour blind ever observe the world as someone who is not – or even as someone colour blind to a different degree or in a different way? Even our ability to consider alternate contexts is limited because of the very thing responsible for generating them: our past experiences and knowledge, which are not easily switched off. The first of several continuums I will introduce is concerned with the different degrees of interdisciplinary collaboration. Considering the difficulty in enabling, disabling or swapping our own contextual biases selectively and in an on-demand fashion, collaborating with others – fully acknowledging and welcoming biases based on their own unique set of experiences and knowledge – is perhaps the next best thing. Not all collaboration is created equal, however, and the degree of interdisciplinary collaboration will certainly define what will be possible to achieve. At one extreme is multidisciplinary – which perhaps should not even be considered a form of a collaboration. This is the case where many people from many backgrounds work on solving a single problem, but in complete insolation. By far the most common form bears the populist namesake interdisciplinary collaboration and is characterized by its ‘black-box nature’, where a project is subdivided into pieces and individuals take responsibility for the components – only concerned with the output required of themselves and the inputs required of other people. Transdisciplinary collaboration is the ideal form of collaborative teamwork. It transcends the core questions to involve contributors in defining the goals and outcomes of a project; specialists in other disciplines are not simply considered functional on-demand black-box resources to be engaged and disengaged as needed, but their expertise is incorporated as a primary concern at the earliest planning stages of research or a project. (INTEG220, 2011, p. Nov 3; Miller, 2008, p. Disciplinarities) It is within the space of transdisciplinary collaboration that the methods outlined in this paper will be most effective; it is within the context of transdiciplinary collaboration that perceptual bias may be best harnessed when conducting research in teams, especially teams involving people with limited domain expertise.
Perceptual bias is most effectively harnessed in a collaborative setting, with people from varying disciplines, and consequently depths of expertise in a particular matter. People at every depth of expertise can almost always contribute, though those contributing with little specialized knowledge in the field add value in significantly different ways than those with ten thousand hours of training. Specifically, those with contributory expertise add value stemming from their intimate knowledge of the domain at hand. This is different from how those with interactional expertise – knowing the language, jargon and terms – add value, which is likewise different from how those with primary source, popular understanding, or ‘beer-mat’ expertise may add value (Harry Collins, 2007, p. 14). Essentially a continuum – with contributory expertise mapping to our typical understanding of an expert, someone with doctoral credentials, to someone with ‘beer-mat’ expertise essentially having read a summary – each level of ‘expert’ has the potential to bring something valuable to an exchange, even if it is ignorance. Ignorance can be a powerful tool to force reanalysis of assumptions and justification of actions taken that otherwise would not likely have occurred. This reanalysis often results in alternative means to an end, and an awareness of alternatives is exceptionally important when making decisions – for the simple reason of otherwise being unable to choose the optimal path. An economics professor was once asked by a charitable foundation to help them decide, of all the possible requests for funding before them, which projects would best allocate their resources to benefit society. In touring the lab of a preeminent cancer researcher, it came upon the professor to ask if the researcher had considered any alternatives to his current approach, considering the significant amount of money requested. Economics being primarily concerned with the best possible allocation of resources to benefit society, it was natural for him to ask “Was there a better way to do this that would not cost as much?” The researcher responded that there was only one possible method. Again, the professor asked he had considered any alternatives – to which the researcher became quite agitated and the answer clear (Smith, 2011). Cancer research was a field the economics professor had a popular understanding of – knowledge from the media and consumer magazines, perhaps. Nonetheless, expertise from an entirely different domain enabled the economics professor to unearth a potentially fatal flaw in the cancer researcher’s approach to solving a very important problem – he had not considered alternative means to accomplishing his research objective. Alternatives posed by less than contributory experts are, in decreasing succession, less susceptible to thinking in ways confined by the epistemological framework – or conceptual scheme – attached to a discipline. Thus, the benefits of epistemological pluralism – where the epistemological approaches of disparate disciplines are recognized as being valuable – result from welcoming contribution from all disciplines and heights of expertise (INTEG220, 2011, p. Nov 3; Miller, 2008, p. Conclusion) staged within the context of transdisciplinary collaboration. While this alone will increase the effectiveness of research, we can also vary the design of the study itself to attain new perspectives.

 
Triangulation extends the concept of epistemological pluralism and builds on its benefits by intentionally varying the path to discoveries: the design of the study itself. Comparable to the divergent brainstorming process, triangulation acknowledges the existence of a continuum of study designs and advocates conducting multiple studies on a single research topic in anticipation of converging on the same conclusions, greatly strengthening the research position. This continuum contains manipulative studies at one extreme, through partial manipulation and natural experiments to observational surveys at the other end (Scheiner, 2004, p. 55). Manipulative studies allow the researcher control over all variables, granting the freedom to choose values to modify while maintaining controls. Partial manipulation and natural experiments simply acknowledge that some variables simply may not be contained and will likely vary naturally over the course of experimentation. While the defined goal of triangulation largely rests on corroboration of results, I contest there exists additional benefits to varying the study design in the path to arriving at conclusions. Just as the process of involving individuals from distinct backgrounds and significantly varying expertise results in novel approaches to problem solving, the subtle differences of study designs each will prompt different questions based on the nature of their processes. The activities involved with an observational study are much different from the activities required by manipulative or even natural designs, and it is these dissimilar activities which will prompt dissimilar questions about the same topic. A likeness to the benefits of epistemological pluralism becomes apparent, though arrived to by different means. If the method of thinking – or epistemological framework – normally affects which study design to employ, there could be significant value in decoupling the method of thinking from the study implementation, an almost certain inevitability when engaging triangulation. Conducting complimentary studies of multiple designs not only creates more rigorous conclusions, but encourages variance in the path to arriving at conclusions; it is this variance – the small details, the pieces that don’t quite mesh – which lead to larger questions and even more profound discoveries.

 
Perceptual bias and susceptibility to priming are unilaterally considered negative attributes within the objective world of science. I speculate that the notion of non-contributory individuals making meaningful contributions to a field is considered similarly absurd. However, ridding ourselves completely of perceptual bias is near, if not, impossible and expertise is a continuum that includes those without PhDs. I have argued that a biased perception can become an incredible asset if harnessed, and consequently demonstrated how even someone of limited knowledge can make valuable contributions to a specialist field. Further, by suggesting choice of study design itself lends to a particular perspective, I argued conducting multiple studies of varying design surrounding a single research topic delivers similar benefits. Granted, to implement a multi-study design approach to research – or even to intentionally involve non-contributory experts would imply significant change to the status quo. The financial burden of triangulation would be great; many would see it as simply replicating results and decry it as a waste of scarce resources. The time commitment required interacting and sharing with non-contributory experts is not insignificant, and requires noteworthy humility to acknowledge that someone of perhaps beer-mat knowledge could offer anything of value to highly specialized research. However, as the pace of research and innovation ever accelerates due to increasing accessibility to education and worldwide competitive pressures rise, we cannot simply maintain our current methods if we wish globally competitive. We must innovate how we come about innovations.

Much formatting  was  lost in translation. The full paper with references may be found here.

“Would you like to buy some Chocolate for Kare for Kids International?”

I am currently enjoying the relative  high speed internet (compared to iPhone tethering) of Second Cup coffee house trying to plan out the upcoming week and take a moment to catch up with my thoughts. There’s a lot of truth in Steven Johnson’s TED talk, with respect to coffee shops being a place of thought and idea-meshing – though today for me is more a time of thought and reflection (fertile ground for blog post creation, I might add).

I was lost in a drifting, wayward, thought when a jolt of energy bursted from my immediate left. A kid no older than 11 was blurting at something approaching light speed. To be sure, I was slightly taken aback – I might have muttered “what?” as I struggled to switch context.

Still unable to contain himself, he repeated,”would you like to buy some chocolate for Kare for Kids International?” A millisecond pause as he inhaled at a similar speed. “It would be really helpful. Only $10 dollars for three boxes.”

In stark contrast to his lighting-speak, I slowly explained that I had no cash on me, and had spent more of the day than I wanted to spend hunting for transit ticket dispensers that accepted debit. His eyes started darting around. He was losing interest. But I implored him for details  - “what is this organization? What do you do?” After all, this was a young person doing something out of the ordinary, something I love to see and am keenly interested in.

At this point another kid – whom I shall refer to as kid2 – emerged from behind the kid. Somewhat taller and of a slighter build, he didn’t say much – or anything, rather – he simply handed me a thickly laminated (though somehow water stained) information sheet that explained K4K International and what they did. By this time the kid became fixated on the next target somewhere behind me. I took my time and read both sides, eventually handing the material back to kid2 along with a few words of encouragement. He uttered “thanks” along with a slight smite and then reassumed his place trailing the kid.

I would have really liked to have bought their chocolate. Even more though, I  really would have  loved to offer both of them a few tips in pitching, persuasion, and building good arguments. My few suggestions would have been to focus on building relationships and connecting with people at a deeper level than simply what you are trying to achieve. In essence, treat people as people and not as objectives. Strike up conversation, figure out what their experiences have been with similar organizations. Have they ever encountered poverty or felt the need to do anything about it? Get people excited. Young people doing incredible things have an amazing capacity to do exactly that.

My eyes followed the kid as he progressed towards the door – kid2 in tow – abruptly stopping at each table en route to repeat the same offer he gave me, each time being turned down by some barely legible mumble escaping the mouths of people too consumed to care.

They were a team of two extremes – of fire and ice – the go getter and the strong and silent. But kid knew persistence, and kid2 was ever vigilant – ready and waiting when the time was right. They’ll do well. They’re getting an early introduction to a skillset gleaned through context and practice, not from a textbook, and have lots of time to figure out for themselves what works and what doesn’t. Reminds me of Cameron Herold’s TED Talk.

I only wish I could have helped them learn a little faster.

On Entrepreneurship

The following is slated for publication in the premiere issue of Effect Magazine, based out of Niagra. I was asked by a good friend, Yashvi Shah, to write on the expansive topic of Entrepreneurship.

When I was asked to write about Entrepreneurship, innovation and how it has affected to my life – I thought it only fair to preface the story with the observation that entrepreneurship itself is not one single thing, nor is it the same thing necessary to every person. It is a dynamic term, vaguely defined and very broad. Though I believe for most people, tech entrepreneurship is the opportunity to build something incredible, improve people’s lives by solving real problems, and work with amazing people.

Entrepreneurship is an umbrella term: it describes a set of attributes and personality traits – a mindset of optimism and childlike wonder, a willingness and capacity to see opportunity in nearly everything – that concisely describes a group of people empowered by the thought that they can change the world. It is not so much something I do but who I am. It is not a job to be started and stopped, but rather a concept to describe the continual sub-activities of my life. Sub-activities I consumed myself with far before they were ever labelled entrepreneurial.

For as far as I can remember I’ve loved building things – out of wood, out of metal, of lego and sand – often held together by excessive quantities of hot-glue and bent over nails. As a child I could often be found in the summer months hammering away at plywood and two-by-fours, integrating a ‘pool’ into our wooden patio (Oh! My poor mother) or creating yet another extension to the tree fort.

Though the fun wasn’t just in building for me – it was in seeing people use what I built. Fortunately, I have two daring younger brothers who joyfully took on the role of beta-testing everything from the ‘high-diving board’ (a ladder with a few modifications) to the ‘inter-treefort-transfer-system’ (something resembling a zipline). There was just something mesmerizing about creating something large and audacious – and then seeing people use and enjoy it.

Somewhere around grade two I began to think computers were really cool (mostly because I could print (seemingly) endless quantities of advertisements for the aforementioned creations). This was also around the time where powerpoint was becoming mainstream and digital video editing was cutting edge – these trends, in combination with some really incredible teachers at my elementary school, cast computers within the same context as ‘creating something large and audacious’. I became interested in production technology (sound mixing, etc.), and by extension, theatre.

So: desire to build something big + computer technology + spectacle creation + lack of stage fright = the ingredients that built my Tech Entrepreneurship foundation.

Words are powerful, and I cannot think of a better case as when I truly discovered the word ‘entrepreneur’. What was previously disparate clusters of interests and abilities could now be repackaged and presented concisely. I now had a brand. I now knew what to ‘search for’ – so to speak (see On asking questions for commentary on the importance of context) – in seeking out a community of people who shared many of the same hard-to-define passions.

This was a big deal – there are other people like me! Put a talented group of like-minded people passionate about the same thing – be it hockey, soccer, music, academics, cars, and yes, even entrepreneurship – together in the same room and things will happen (Shad taught me that). So entrepreneurship – as a concept or term – more than anything else has enabled me to connect with a community who share something in common. One commentator wrote down several of these commonalities he saw as fundamental to entrepreneurship, qualities I agree can be found in most entrepreneurs I’ve met.

- Not very status-oriented
- Doesn’t follow rules very well and questions authority
- Can handle high degrees of ambiguity or uncertainty
- Can handle rejection, being told ‘no’ often and yet still have the confidence in your idea
- Very decisive.  A bias toward making decisions even when only right 70% of the time, moving forward & correcting what doesn’t work
- A high level of confidence in your own ideas and ability to execute
- Not highly susceptible to stress
- Have a high risk tolerance
- Not scared or ashamed of failure
- Can handle long hours, travel, lack of sleep and the trade-offs of having less time for hobbies & other stuff

The startup I’m building with an incredible group of people (spanning four provinces and five timezones – from BC, to Newfoundland), inflo, would not be where its at today without this community of mutual support. The effect is net-positive – that is, everyone builds and receives value from and for everyone else, the result being that everyone ends up with more than they could have done by themselves. It is a classic example of the whole being greater than the sum of the parts,

Considering inflo’s sole product – photofloTV - is a community building tool, it is incredibly useful to reflect on the nature of community to better understand how we can improve the lives of our grandparents and seniors. photofloTV enables families to seamlessly share photos and other media with their grandparents and elderly loved ones by allowing you send this content directly to channel four of their TV in a constantly updating slideshow. It integrates into the ways you already use technology by interfacing with Facebook, flickr, youtube, etc. as well as integrating with technology your grandparents are familiar with, their TVs.

Having a core understanding of community has allowed us to take what I’ve just described to a new level: aspiring to deliver an integrated community building system to retirement homes.

Entrepreneurship is empowering. At its core is the idea that a small group – or even an individual – can create something that will have a positive effect on lives of a disproportionately large number of people. To build something from nothing – to create value that otherwise will not exist – to turn a mere idea into something tangible, is to me incredibly alluring.

On Asking Questions

The power of the internet belongs to those who have mastered the art of asking good questions.

What, then, constitutes a good question? What’s the difference between a good question and a bad one? In today’s world, our ability to find information often dictates productivity. How then can we purposefully strive to form better questions?

It is a bit of a paradoxical situation We ask questions to discover something we do not already know – we only know what we want to know, and so we can only describe what we want to know in terms of what we know of it already. Which – when you think about it – is a serious limitation.

All new information we glean through self-directed learning (ie. Googling), is an extension of what we already know. (and everything we come to learn is a platform from which to build future understandings). So in order to learn new things, we must ask questions based on ‘old things’. In a world where keyword based discovery reigns king, not knowing the jargon of ‘new things’ can cause considerable delay in acquiring new concepts.

The context surrounding new concepts must be built first. We must ask ourselves, “What terms do people who are already familiar with these concepts use to describe them?”

‘Google Instant’, the feature that autosuggests what you might be looking for based on what you’ve already entered into the search box,  is an attempt to aid you in discovering the context surrounding what you’re looking for – though you still must know enough of what you’re looking for to employ at least one instance of jargon, from which Google can extrapolate related jargon.

So back to our root question: “How do you search for something when you lack context?” Currently, the answer seems to be hoping that someone else also lacked context and attempted to describe what they were trying to learn the same way you did. This can break down fairly easily as the material to be learned becomes more specialized; as the material to be learned requires more prerequisite knowledge.

A concrete example: A few days ago I was trying to learn the syntax for writing arrays in python. There was surprisingly little available information on Google (compared to the number of results a normal query would have returned), and the material I did find was obviously not official python documentation. The context I was lacking is that python does not have arrays, and the jargon I was looking for was ‘tuples’, ‘dictionaries’ and ‘lists’ – data types that offer similar functionality of what I knew as ‘arrays’.

It seems that our ability to ask good questions is directly related to our ability to build context around what we want to know. How do we build context surrounding what we want to know? We start with what we already know and generalize what we want to know. As we build context and associated jargon, we gain the ability to increase the specificity of our query – and the likelihood of finding experts who are discussing what we want to know -  because you now are using the same jargon they are.

So how do we become more efficient at learning? And how, when our productivity depends much on our ability to learn, how do we increase productivity? Learn to build context fast.

God Bless Andria

This post is a testament to the existence of those people who consciously decide to place others before themselves; with no conditions – not of prior meeting, not of reciprocating a good deed – nothing. They exist.

Well, I’m sick. Not one week into University in Waterloo, Ontario – thousands of kilometers away from home – and I’m sick. The flu or something; chills, fever, cough, nose – the works. I follow the logical ‘sick-mode’ steps and procedures; drink lots of water, get lots of sleep, take vitamin C tablets, become an ultra-paranoid hand washer… Unfortunately, the get lots of sleep part doesn’t really work with a six-course class schedule, which might be the major reason I slept into 1:30 PM today – which is great, when you think the Walk-in Clinic is open until 5:00. Well, it’s not. Apparently around here, doctors wind down weekend operations at 3:00, IF you’re lucky. The first clinic I called said, “Yes, officially we’re open until three – but there were no patients, so the doctors left.” Several minutes of cross-country collaboration with my dear and patient mother resulted in two other locations that were open to an astonishing…3:00. One didn’t pick up the phone. That left some office on “Fairway Dr.” as the only option. By now, it’s thoroughly past 2:00. More cross country collaboration; mom recommends a cab company. So after phoning the taxi service and requesting a hire to meet me at the Tim Horton’s on campus, I start walking in that general direction. Just as the Tim Horton’s appears around the corner, a taxi pulls away. So now I’m running. And sick (did I mention I was sick?) – chasing a cab. Lucky for me, there was traffic and a generous allocation of stop signs.  Unlucky for me, the first thing he said when I mentioned the destination was, “Ooohh. That’s quite a drive.” What’s that supposed to mean? By this time we were already moving, and he was eagerly chatting about his 50 acre property near Nelson, BC, so I didn’t implore him for details. Gruesome details like a $30.00 cab fare a whole five minutes before 3:00. Yes, the doctor’s office was more in Kitchener than Waterloo.

Of course immediately upon entering the facility I’m reminded by the people in waiting room holding out their health cards that I in fact do not have a care card on me. My whole assortment of cards and mess of a wallet has been gleefully replaced by one single solitary “WatCard” that does everything in my bubble of the world. On the university campus (and even off) this card can be used as ID, Buss Pass, for the Meal Plan, to buy things, Laundry, and room access – hey, I even paid for my Cab fare with it (which, if you think about it, is not exactly an easy task for those who had to implement this functionality). This card, however, is not recognized as covering my doctor’s visit. A sign informed me I would have to pay $40.00 for my little memory lapse.

The second thing I noticed – which in retrospect I’m surprised I had not noticed until now – was a much larger sign that boldly read “Registrations no longer accepted.” Fearing it was what I imagined it only could be, I asked the somewhat disinterested receptionist if that meant they no longer accepted patients today. She confirmed, as though I should have been able to infer that from the sign, and informed me they reopened Monday. Apparently, they stopped accepting patients before closing time to ensure they could get out by closing time.  I tried a last ditch effort: “I just paid $30.00 for a cab fare to get here, is there any way you could check…” The response came with a hint of empathy: “I’m sorry, they’ve asked me not to accept any more.” I’ve now accepted my situation and resigned myself to a rather unproductive afternoon.

I’m sure Andria isn’t her real name – it was the first name that came to mind after reflecting upon the events that unfolded in the span of a few seconds in that doctor’s office waiting room. She never told me, I never asked – and I’ll most likely never know. But what she did tell me was this: as I walked towards the door,  my back turned to her, she called out “Hey, you can have my place. I’m just in for a checkup, I can come back. I’m next in line.”

The rest of that conversation I do not cohesively remember. I’m sure I stood there a little awestruck, perhaps like a deer about to be run down by a semi. I’m sure I thanked her and smiled. When they called her, she motioned for me to get up and proceeded to inform the receptionist that I was to take her spot. When I turned around she was already halfway across the room, headed for the door. The receptionist demanded my attention, obviously not overjoyed at having to fill out more paperwork.

The thought crossed my mind as I was paying for the visit with debit (which I chose to bring in a last minute split-second decision before heading out of my room) that I would ask if they offered ‘Cash Back’ and try to offer the woman a gratuity for her trouble, but the notable lack of a cash register or the advertisement of any such services – combined with the big sign that read, “It’s against our policy to give out any patient information” and the receptionist’s facial expression – discouraged any such idea.

I will likely return to that area however – what with several big box retailers and a convenient bus terminal – and when I do I will return with a letter of appreciation, which I will insist –  on pain of not leaving -the receptionist include with Andria’s file, waiting for her next visit.

Should she be Christian or not – the bottom line is that her actions embody becoming the hands and feet of Christ, placing others before ourselves with no restrictions – just selfless love rooted in Jesus. As Christians, it serves as a reminder to the power of selflessness and to the importance and possibilities of acting on our faith.

“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves.” Philippians 2:3 (NIV)

It’s against our policy

I’ve come across this statement several times recently when interacting with the sales departments of larger companies. This string of words does not work towards the common goal of both parties involved in the transaction – that being a negotiated deal. In my most recent case, I was speaking with a woefully uninterested sales rep from buydomains.com, a company in the business of domain speculation. My question was if I could trade an appraised domain that I owned for one of similar value that they had listed on their website. Not even before I had finished my sentence were my words abruptly overruled by a snappy “It’s against our policy,” resulting in an awkward silence after which the only course of action I could think of was to thank the lovely young woman for her time and end the conversation. No room was left for negotiation. No offer was made to go through a review process (as they normally would do when they ‘buy’ domains). No suggestion emerged that I should submit the domain to their acquisitions department. We both lost. Needless to say the domain I was planning to offer for trade was appraised higher than the domain I was seeking – and also happens to contain the name of the world’s largest corporation, Exxon Mobil. The domain was exxon.me.

That single statement, “It’s against our policy,” effectively shifts the responsibility to a mysterious executive deep within the bowels of this monster-company through which one must machete a near endless wall of red tape to plead one’s cause. It further builds the facade of a faceless company, the art having been mastered by the likes of Microsoft and telecom companies. It does nothing for customer satisfaction and does nothing to remotely suggest the company has an interest in the customers’ situation or problem. It epitomizes everything consumers hate about large companies.

Now, there is an obvious need for policy in companies – large and small. There is no denying this. Policy is important to ensure the goals of the company are being followed by every department and every employee. But even though you, Mr. / Ms. customer support rep may be thinking, “It’s against our policy,” that’s not what the customer wants to hear. Just like your boss, we the customers want to hear creative solutions, not problems. If there is no alternative path to supplying the customer with his / her needs without breaking company policy, then don’t use the “policy” word. Don’t lump the responsibility onto some obscure entity that is “policy.” Explain that the company or manager has decided not to pursue that area of business.

Through overuse as a catch-all “get out of jail free” card for anyone dealing with customers, the word “policy” has left a bad taste in our society. If nothing else find a synonym. Better still offer a solution.