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Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

Samizdata quote of the day

Back in 2001, Brian Micklethwait once said something that has since become part of my standard operating procedure. Speaking from his experience actually organising activities, rather than just talking about organising them as is the case with most people, he said if someone starts to offer you unsolicited advice about how to improve whatever it is that you are doing, immediately ask if they are prepared to get involved and implement their suggestion themselves. If the answer is yes, listen to what they have to say. If the answer if no, stop them right there and change the subject.

Perry de Havilland

27 comments to Samizdata quote of the day

  • CaptDMO

    Yep, ’cause once all the actual heavy lifting is done, If you build it, they will come.

    Been there, done that, and sometimes I don’t even get a leftover “in attendance” t shirt.

  • Tedd

    I’ll remember that. I’ve noticed that there seems to be an inverse correlation between the likelihood that someone has a suggestion and the likelihood that they’ve actually done anything themselves to help the organization.

  • PersonFromPorlock

    I’m not sure the principle makes sense. There are good reasons why someone might offer advice without offering assistance, for instance a US resident advising on a UK project, or vice versa. Or the advisor really doesn’t have the spare time, or can’t afford whatever expenses are involved in assisting. Or maybe people with really original ideas feel like they’ve already done the heavy lifting, and the advisee is just being lazy in expecting them to do ‘the scut work’, too.

    And maybe they’re right.

  • I’m not sure the principle makes sense.

    Oh but it does 😀 Years of experience have shown me that 99% of unsolicited advice is not worth the calories burnt processing the sounds, and is more often than not positively unhelpful. And I am willing to risk missing that 1% because life is too short.

  • I’ll remember that. I’ve noticed that there seems to be an inverse correlation between the likelihood that someone has a suggestion and the likelihood that they’ve actually done anything themselves to help the organization.

    Quite. As they say, talk is cheap.

  • Spruance

    It is a proven method in organistions to invite every critic to participate. And, if you are a little experienced, you might ask the critic for a brief written explanation of his ideas. About 90% of all cases will end exactly there. And, if you ask me, this is a good thing.

  • Paul Marks

    Good post.


  • Fred the Fourth

    I have plenty of relevant experience, and based on that my vote is that Brian’s point is completely correct.
    It isn’t so much that the advice from the non-volunteers is necessarily useless, though that’s the way to bet. It’s that what one really needs is motivated and productive help, and this is an efficient way to identify it. Real-world organizations (as opposed to government bureaucracies) must operate efficiently, or die.

  • Samsam von Virginia

    All things are possible to those who don’t have to do the work.

  • andyinsdca

    Ah yes, this is good stuff. I’m on our HOA board of directors (yes, I’m one of them) and we were negotiating with an owner to do some work in her unit and we wanted to reimburse her $X, she wanted $Y. We talked about the finances for the HOA, this was a good number for us bla bla. Finally, our Prez offered her if she’s good with numbers, she can be on the board and deal with finances. She caved and we gave her the middle number.

  • Tedd

    …not worth the calories burnt processing the sounds…

    He’s on a roll!

  • I think that’s too rigid a standard. I used to run program planning for a variety of conventions, from tiny little local conventions up to the San Diego Comic-Con (when it was less than half its current size!). I retired about a decade ago when game writing started to turn into a secondary career for me. But I don’t think that makes my advice valueless.

  • Rich Rostrom

    This is generally a good rule, but it can backfire spectacularly. Because one may be inviting someone with really bad ideas (and much enthusiasm) to jump in.

  • Natalie Solent (Essex)

    I have no doubt that Brian’s rule of thumb works, and if you have to specify means to filter a surplus of unsolicited advice, that’s a pretty good one to choose. Nonetheless a rule of thumb should allow for exceptions. I think PersonFromPorlock and William H. Stoddard’s have a point. There are loads of situations in which the person offering the advice may be well qualified to offer that advice and ill qualified to offer help. Technical and specialist advisors spring to mind. The stereotype of the skilled technical person with poor social and organisational skills, such that you should actively fear having him thrashing about in your organisation, has much truth in it.

    I realise that Brian and you are not claiming that it is impossible or unlikely that by operating this rule of thumb you turn down what might be useful advice. But I think that even if this is a successful way to work generally you should explicitly suspend it for certain categories of advice.

    Technical advice is one of those categories, as above. Another type of advice that you should consider outside the usual rule for is the sort of advice that is likely to be best if it comes from unsympathetic, uncommitted people who are only interested in you and your organisation in so far as it offers them an opportunity to make money off you or show off.

    That is quite a large category of advice, actually. It includes many people who are trying to sell you things. I don’t need to tell you how condusive to offering good reality-based advice the motives of getting repeat custom as a consultant, or getting testimonials for your good advice, or of burnishing one’s professional reputation and getting repeat custom from other people can be. OK, so perhaps you were thinking only of volunteers, but there are plenty of situations where a mercenary is better. Some guy called Micklethwait told me that. That category (advice that comes best from unsympathetic people) also can include some unpaid advisers. For instance, it can be useful to hear the views of those who do not share your objectives regarding your advertising or propaganda material. Unlike your friends within the circle, they won’t spare your feelings when something comes across as annoying or incomprehensible to the public.

    A member of my family was once working in the front office of a company. She fell into conversation with a bloke waiting for an appointment and ended up making a rant about the useless and irritating sales practices of a certain other company with whom her company had dealings. Not, perhaps, ideal professional behaviour on her part, but he seemed sympathetic and it was the sort of gripe more easily made to a stranger than to her bosses who were invested in the present situation. You guessed it, the bloke was that company’s boss. He was extremely grateful for intelligence that he would have found it difficult to get in the normal way of things.

  • Natalie Solent (Essex)

    Another thought, in semi-contradiction to Brian’s advice as quoted.

    I’m close to several people, who, like William H. Stoddard above, used to be involved in running conventions. In their case, science fiction conventions. I remember one of them telling me that if you want a good number of volunteers, it is quite important to make it clear to potential volunteers that it is OK to only want to volunteer occasionally.

    If people think that an incautious assent to spending a few hours doing something next Saturday is going to get them landed with giving up every Saturday afternoon for the next few years, or having to refuse to do so in an embarrassing way, then they’ll sit firmly on their hands when the request is made.

    Offering a snippet of advice might be their way of testing the water as to whether limited volunteering is acceptable.

    Yet, for all that, I don’t disagree with Brian’s point. It is a bit like the way political betting often predicts elections better than opinion polls. When I was nervous about the recent Scottish independence referendum I found it very comforting to go over to Betfair and look at the rock-steady odds. Having some sort of stake in the outcome concentrates the mind.

  • Runcie Balspune

    Natalie, companies have exploited internal employee betting markets to predict outcomes of projects.

  • I suspect one of the operative words that some of the comments have missed is ‘unsolicited’.

    This is generally a good rule, but it can backfire spectacularly. Because one may be inviting someone with really bad ideas (and much enthusiasm) to jump in.

    Hearing them out because they offer to help is not the same thing as actually inviting them across the doorstep without seeing if they reflect in a mirror first 😉

  • I get given advice all the time in my line of work, and I am quick to ask “Have you actually done this sort of thing before, then?” Most of the time the answer is “No, but…” at which point I laugh at them. But I don’t dismiss all unsolicited advice offhand. A Norwegian colleague of mine who follows currency fluctuations told me a couple of years ago one day that the Euro had crashed against the CHF, the Swiss government will probably intervene in a couple of days to peg the currencies, and if I had a load of CHF now was the time to fill my boots by buying Euros. I did, right there and then, and made about £15k in a morning.

  • Oh yes, Tim! That is the difference between welcoming unsolicited advice within your area of expertise (i.e. “what you are doing”) vs. in an area that is their area of expertise and not yours.

  • Perry, very true. One of the funniest comments heard occasionally on the TV show Dragon’s Den is somebody saying “Our financial advisers have told us our company is worth £2m” and one of the Dragons responding with “So how much are your financial advisers investing, then?”

    Advice truly is cheap when you don’t have skin in the game.

  • This is brilliant. Though I think really the value in the policy is the simple awareness of it. Or maybe tune it to be ‘unsolicited advice given at the wrong time, can be dismissed categorically.’

  • TheHat

    I talked with one of these individuals. He was keen to announce that ‘he was an ideas man’. He seemed to think that people should pay him to have ideas. He wasn’t interested in actually doing anything. As he saw it, it was his job to ‘have ideas’ and that was more valuable than actually working.

  • Kevin B

    I do think that ‘area of expertise’ is a difficult category to define though.

    For instance, we’ve all been receiving lots of unsolicited advice from people with an ‘area of expertise’ in, for instance, public health. Much of this advice is contradictory or just plain wrong.

    Sometimes it is possible to question an individual about their skin in the game. For example one can ask one’s GP such questions as “Do you drink then?” or “Do you take statins” or even “How much do you get from the government or a drug company for prescribing this long term medication?”, but when advice is given through the media by the ‘Public Health’ lobby it is difficult to ask the relevant questions of those giving the advice, particularly if the media itself prefers to just regurgitate press releases.

    So, Brian’s excellent advice needs to be expanded to include questions such as ‘is this coming from the government?” in which case “whose good are they looking after, theirs or mine?”. Also “is this an advice organisation or is it a sock-puppet group paid by my taxes to lobby government to do what they want to do but daren’t do on their own?”*

    I’m sure there are plenty of other questions one can ask but these will do for now.

    *How on earth have we let this situation occur, let alone proliferate at the rate it has?

  • Brian Micklethwait (London)

    I have only just noticed this posting, and have not yet read all the above responses. But yes, Perry is absolutely right to emphasise “unsolicited”. Because another feature of capable organisers is that they often do solicit advice, and then listen carefully, and they then reflect. Example: Simon Gibbs, asking his Libertarian Home congregation what we all thought of his recent Cost of Living Debate. Given that he actually is soliciting complaints (as well as praise), even quoting some of the complaints so far, I may chime in with my own nitpicks (along with my praise). If I do, it will help that I was also helping, by taking photos of the event.

    A lot of this is dog-fighting, people trying to prove to each other that they are better than each other. Often the why-don’t-you-ers (as I like to call them) are just trying to convince you that they outrank you, on the basis of you having worked your arse off with admittedly imperfect results, and of them having done bugger all except nitpick. Asking them why-don’t-YOU? is just a slightly more polite way of shutting them up, instead of just saying: shut up. In fact a much more polite way. And that difference could make all the difference, to them sticking around and actually doing good things in the future, or disappearing.

  • In my case, at least, I mainly offer advice to programming staff at conventions where I expect to appear as a panelist. I have definite personal interest in their doing their job well, and something to lose if they follow suboptimal methods—for example, assigning panelists to panels without ever giving them a list of actual topics and asking which ones interest them; I would rather be on panels that I asked to be on!

  • Richard Thomas

    I’ve generally come to find that offering advice is a recreational-only activity. Even if you offer to do all the heavy lifting, if the advice doesn’t fit someone’s pre-conceived notions, they’ll generally be dismissed or humored and forgotten. It’s only when one is able to directly implement the advice (often subversively) that things get done.

    If advice is actually solicited by an enlightened entity, the situation is usually (but not always) different.

  • William Newman


    I sorta support the cautions in comments above against being *too* energetic about tuning out unsolicited advice. I have done a lot of volunteer work on free software projects, and in the course of that I have naturally tuned out a considerable amount of unsolicited guidance when there was no reason to take it seriously. And, of the possible reasons to take it seriously, showing motivation and ability to actually do the work is the most common. But there are other possible reasons to take it seriously: in particular, there are at least hundreds of people who have a sufficiently impressive reputation known to me that I would take their advice very seriously even if it was just talk that they weren’t motivated to back up with action. (And a good fraction of them have a particularly natural excuse not to want to do the work on my project: they are already very productively involved as a key actor in other projects which are more impressive than mine is likely to be.)

    Of course, there seem to be at least tens of thousands of people who feel the generous impulse to offer unsolicited guidance:-| and so by luck of the draw naturally the few hundred redoubtable individuals I recognize seldom happen to be the ones doing so. But when they do happen to be the ones doing so, I try to pay careful attention.