David Dylan Thomas: Thank you. Thank you so much. This is awesome.
I’d like to begin first by sitting in this chair because I’ve been in the audience watching speakers and seeing this chair just sitting empty the whole time. And I feel like -- I feel bad for the chair.
David: I feel like the chair was brought here, and it was like, “I’m going to be a chair! I’m going to be on stage!” And then, like, “Nobody is sitting in me. Is it me?”
So, chair, it’s not you. I’m going to sit in you for the beginning of my talk so that we can all--
[Audience applause and cheers]
David: Okay. We appreciate you and you are loved.
So, my name is David Dylan Thomas. My job is to go around getting people excited about (and giving them better tools for) more inclusive design.
As Marc mentioned, I have this book, Design for Cognitive Bias, and a lot of what you’re going to hear about today can be found in this book.
Don’t go to Amazon to get it, not just because it’s Amazon, because they’ll give you a big markup. Just go to A Book Apart. It’s awesome.
I want to begin by telling you about an experiment. The way this experiment works is you get yourself an audience, and you show them a picture like this. You ask them, “Should this person drive this car?”
What you’re going to get is basically a policy discussion. Some people are going to say, “Oh, old people are bad at everything. Don’t let them drive.”
And other people are going to say, “How dare you. That’s ageist. Let people do what they want.”
And all you’re really going to learn by the end of that conversation is who is on what side.
Now, you can show the same photo to a different audience and ask, “How might this person drive this car?” And what you’re going to get is basically a design discussion.
Some people will say, “What if we change the shape of the steering wheel?” or “What if we move the dashboard?” What you’ll learn by the end of that conversation is several different ways that person might be able to drive that car.
Now, online and frankly, in person, we’ve gotten really good at the “should” conversation. I can go online right now, and I can tell you very quickly who is on what side.
What we’re not so good at and what I don’t think we have really good tools for is the “how” conversation. That’s what I want to talk about today.
There’s this guy, Robert Fersh. He created a policy center in D.C. Their whole job is to get people who are on opposite sides of an issue to come to the same table.
In describing why he founded it, he said, “Over a period of years, I kept meeting people of great decency who had different world views but there wasn’t a place where they could meet to bring out the best in each other and find answers that each hadn’t considered.”
Now, there are certain phrases in there I want to highlight.
First, “people of great decency.” I often think that when we disagree with someone, we make this assumption that maybe they don’t have all that much decency.
“Wasn’t a place.” A lot of what I’m going to talk about today is how the actual location, online or in person, the environment we have these conversations in matters.
“Best in each other.” Right? Again, when we get into these fights, I think sometimes we assume there isn’t actually a best in each other to bring out.
Finally, and maybe more importantly, “hadn’t considered.” Often, we enter into these conversations thinking, “I know the answer. I don’t really have to consider anything else. I just have to convince the other person to see it my way.”
Where are all my ‘80s action fans at? How many people recognize this image?
There are still a couple of us left. Okay, this is Thunderdome from the ‘80s action film Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. It’s basically a post-apocalyptic gladiatorial arena.
The motto, the thing people chant when fighters come in is “Two men enter. One man leaves.” That, I think, is how we view political discourse today. It is essentially a zero-sum game. There has to be a winner and there has to be a loser.
Now, part of the reason we feel this way is something called “The Fundamental Attribution Error,” and you can see it play out if you are driving around and you see somebody run a red light. You might think, “Ah, that person is a dangerous driver. They’re impatient. What’s wrong with them?” You are attributing their behavior to something about them personally.
Now, if you run a red light, “Oh, I was late for work. Somebody was honking behind me.” Right? You attribute your behavior to your context, to your circumstances.
A really good example of this is a joke that George Carlin used to tell which said, “Hey, anybody that drives slower than you is an idiot. Anybody who drives faster than you is a crazy person.”
Now, imagine that when it comes to political discourse, right? Anybody who is more conservative than you is a bigot, old-fashioned. Anybody who is more liberal than you, oh, they’re a hippy, no-way person, right? But you, you’re God’s perfect creature. You have it all figured out. And if only people would just do what you said.
Now, imagine two people with that point of view coming into a conversation with each other. They’re not going to get anywhere.
Now, the whole level of outrage that we have right now is older than we think. This is from 2014, before Brexit and Trump. Slate was able to create this weird advent calendar of outrage where you could click on any day of the year and see what Twitter was losing its mind over that day. Right?
David: So, this isn’t necessarily new - just amplified.
Also, in prior years, the John Oliver show had a website they created called Scream Into the Void where you could load it up, just shout whatever it was you were angry about and hit the scream button. What you would type in that you were shouting would just go spiraling away into the void. This was a public service and, in a way, it was nicer because at least there were no humans on the other side of that scream.
To kind of sum it up without saying words--
David: If aliens were to come down to Earth and try to guess why we created the Internet (just by observing how we used it), they would quickly come to the conclusion that the Internet exists so you can find people that are doing it wrong and tell them that they’re doing it wrong.
A great example is, a while back, Starbucks had this idea where they said, “You know what? America needs to have a conversation about race, so what we’re going do to is we’re going to have your barista write #RaceTogether on your coffee cup, and they’re going to give you your coffee,” and then -- I don’t know. You were supposed to talk about Rodney King with them? I have no idea how this was supposed to work. Frankly, neither did they.
Now, what did happen is that Twitter lost its damn mind, which of course they did. This is very tone-deaf. This is not how to have a conversation about race.
But what didn’t happen was people asking, “Well, wait. What does a productive conversation about race actually look like?” If we had asked that question, well, then we could actually talk about how to have one.
Now, an alternate example comes from an urban park in Philadelphia. Ronnie Polaneczky had sort of keyed in on the fact that people really need to be heard, and she said, “You know what? Let me set up a situation that is specifically there for conversation.”
She went to this urban park in Philadelphia, and she set up a sign and two chairs. The sign said, “I will listen with compassion, without judgment, with an open heart, so is there something you need to say? Tell me. I will listen.”
That chair was never empty. Person after person after person would come up.
The way she tells it, people would sit down, and they would start by saying, “Well, I’m not going to waste a lot of your time.” Then like an hour later, they would have unburdened themselves. Right? But this was set up specifically for conversation.
The point is you get the conversation you design for. If you take nothing else away from this talk, take that away.
Now, even the color that you use can have an impact. It turns out we react differently, cognitively, to different colors.
There’s an experiment where you have people sit down at a computer and you ask them to complete different kinds of tasks. Some of these tasks are very detail-oriented like look for proofreading errors. Other tasks are more creative: Brainstorm ideas.
For the people doing the tasks, some of them had red backgrounds, some of them had blue backgrounds (on the computer).
The people who had red backgrounds for detail-oriented tasks did better. They found 30% more errors if they were doing a proofreading task.
The people who had a blue background, when they were brainstorming, came up with twice as many ideas than if they had a red background.
If you are creating a website or building a room where you want people to have productive conversations, what kind of color choices are you going to think about?
Even the objects in the room can have an impact. If you are having a meeting, an in-person meeting, and there is a briefcase visible, people will tend to act more competitive than if it were, say, a backpack.
The same goes for -- and this, you can imagine, might impact the iconography you might want on your website if, again, you want people to interact more kindly.
This goes for money as well. Right? People reminded of money -- and that could be the particular shade of green you’re using or (depending on the euro) many different shades. I’m sorry. I’m used to American money. Or like the dollar sign or the euro sign, anything that reminds you of money are less interpersonally attuned. They are not prosocial, caring, or warm.
Now, the idea that the environment affects the conversation shouldn’t really be new to us. Right? If you were to go to a restaurant and there was, you know, nice, soft, classical music playing and everything was just very beautiful and there’s soft lighting, you might not think of think of this as a place where you felt compelled to curse as loudly as possible.
Now, if you were to go to a dingy bar and there’s loud music playing and everything is a little bit grimy, you might think this is a place that actively wants you to curse as loudly as possible.
Well, the same thing is true with Web design. If I go to a website like Medium with its cool blues and greens and its pristine typography, this is a place that has sort of encouraged me to be on my best behavior.
If I go to the comment section of YouTube or Reddit, this is a place that seems like it’s not particularly concerned with what I have to say. Right? What it’s essentially saying is, “We put the least amount of effort possible into how this place looks, so you should put the least amount of effort possible into how you conduct yourself here.”
Now, that was just a theory, but I actually got to talk to somebody who works for Medium. I asked them, are these kind of deliberate choices you’re making because I’ve noticed the quality of the comments in your comment section seems a little bit better than a lot of places? And they said yes, that’s absolutely deliberate. In fact, it goes into the word choice as well.
When you are posting a comment, we don’t have a button that says, “Post.” It says “Publish.” Oh, I’m publishing. Oh, okay. Well, let me take all those fucks. Hold on.
David: But these are deliberate choices.
Now, I want to talk a little bit about collaboration versus hierarchy because I think this has a lot to do with how we define a conversation.
Hierarchy is a point of view that basically says this is how it should be and there should be no deviation. Right? It knows the answer already and it is exclusive because now I can divide the world into two different kinds of people: the people who have the answer and agree with me and the people who don’t.
It’s non-learning, right? What do I have to learn? I already know the answer. I have nothing left to learn.
Now, collaboration takes a different approach and says, “Here is a problem we can solve together.” It searches continuously for better answers. It’s never really satisfied.
It’s like, “Okay. I think we’ve got this figured out. But you know what? I bet we could do better.” It is inclusive because now I don’t divide the world into two different kinds of people. There’s really only one type of person: people who might actually have a piece of the answer.
It is learning, always learning because, again, I haven’t got this all figured out. I know there’s still more than I could learn.
The way we talk about race, especially in America but, I think, broadly, is hierarchical. Right? This is what most conversations online about race look like.
Someone gets accused of being a racist and that person then goes on to list all the reasons they are not a racist. And it goes back and forth.
Now, I want to be clear here. I’m not saying we should stop calling people out for being racist. That is a very important function. But I just want to point out the shortcomings of just stopping there.
One of the problems with this approach is that it treats noobs like trolls, which is to say that sometimes you’ll see someone say something offensive online and our immediate assumption is they were deliberately trying to be hurtful. It is also remarkably likely that they just suck at talking about race.
To speak meaningfully about race is a skill. I think we forget that sometimes. None of us is born knowing to have how to have gentle, nuanced conversations about race.
Now, how do you get good at a skill? What did we learn earlier today? You practice.
What happens when you practice, inevitably? You make mistakes, and Twitter allows no room for error.
Part of the problem here is that knowing how not to do something is not the same thing as knowing how to do it. If I were to try to teach you how to drive a car, but the only thing I did was slap your hand every time you did something wrong, you would never learn how to drive that car. And that’s what Twitter is good at, slapping your hand. The outrage ecosystem only knows how to tell you how not to do something.
Let me ask you this question. Literally, I want answers.
What is the opposite of a racist? What’s that word?
I heard antiracist. Anything else?
Okay, so we have a lot of works for how to do it wrong: racist. There are so many ways we know how to describe what not to do. We don’t really have a go-to answer.
Like if I were to say, what’s the opposite of up? Right? That was not the response I got when I asked what’s the opposite of a racist. Right? We have way more ways to describe what not to do than what to do.
Now, fortunately, and I’ll come back to this in a second, the term antiracist has emerged, which I think is better. But we don’t really have the words to describe how to do it right, and that’s important.
When I... I used to have this podcast where I would ask different -- or I would go through, with my partner, different movie genres. We’d talk about how race was described in those different genres.
On a whim, I decided to Google, “Hey, what movies will make me less racist?” and here’s what I got--
The exact opposite of what I searched for, right? The content strategist inside of me was crying.
That’s the problem, right? If I only have the word for what I don’t want, it’s actually very hard to find what I want.
Now, to the term antiracist, I’m glad that exists because even that, which really only tells me what I’m trying to get away from, but good enough. When I googled what films will make me more antiracist, all of a sudden, I’m getting what I’m looking for. Right?
It is extremely valuable to have the language not just for what you don’t want but for what you do. That’s the thing. Most of our content right now is should-oriented and now how-oriented.
Again, I want to be very clear here. Don’t walk away from this saying, “Oh, yeah. I saw this black guy, and he said it’s okay to stop calling people out for being racist.” No, that is not what I said. No. No, no, no, no, no.
I said do that but go further. Right? Because right now that’s kind of all we’re doing. And if that’s all we do, the best we can hope for is a bureaucracy.
A bureaucracy is a place where you try very carefully not to get in trouble. And if all we do is have a big list of words you can’t say, the best you can hope for is people just tiptoeing around trying not to say the wrong thing. And that is no way to get progress.
Part of the reason you’re not going to get progress that way is a phenomenon known as reactance, and it’s the “You can’t tell me what to do” bias.
One way you see it play out is if you have one wall, and on that wall, you write, “Please don’t write on this wall,” a little sign. And on the other wall, there’s a sign that says, “Under no circumstances should you write on this wall.”
Which wall do you think is going to get all the graffiti? Right?
The reason political correctness backfired is it’s basically one big sign saying, “Here are all the things you should never ever say.” Right? That is catnip for reactants.
And so, the second we got people into office who were willing to say those things, it was like a party. “Finally, we get to say all these words that we’ve frankly been fetishizing for years and years and years.”
So, what can we do? I’d be kind of a hypocrite if I came up here and said, “We need to focus more on solutions,” and then just listed all the problems and said, “Good night.”
As it turns out -- and this is why I love giving this talk. As it turns out, there’s actually a lot we can do.
First off, we can start calling out good behavior. Where’s the top ten list of best online conversations for this year? What’s the list of top-ten award-winning comments for 1998?
The more you celebrate something, the more you see of it. If for no other reason than we’re a competitive species. If I see someone get best comment of the year, I’m like, “Pfft. I could do better than that.” Right? Pfft.
Another thing we can do is -- again, to an earlier talk today -- slow down. We can create these interrupters that actually produce better discourse.
One of these was civil comments. This was a plugin for your blog where if someone wanted to comment on your post, they would first have to rate three other comments.
Now, this had a curious effect. One, it forced you, the commenter, to acknowledge that there’s such a thing as a good or bad comment. Then it forced you to apply your own standard. And we will stick to our own standards way more than we’ll stick to standards someone tries to hand down to us.
What would happen a lot is people would say, “Okay, I don’t like that comment, and here’s why,” and then they’d go look at their own comment and be like, “Oh, I did exactly that same thing.” Then they would change their comment.
Yes. About 60% of the people who went through this actually edited and changed their comment before they posted it. And who does that? Right?
And another thing, just a side effect, if I’m rating comments, that means someone is going to rate my comment. Wait a minute. Okay. I’ve got to change this.
Now, unfortunately, civil comments is no more. It failed to find an effective business model. When I told Chris Alfano this -- he’s one of the co-founders of Code for Philly -- he said this, and I’ll never forget it. “We need more tools than there are business models for.”
So, some of the work we need to do to clean up the Web and make it more civil is probably not going to be funded by private enterprise. You probably knew that already.
Another tool that thankfully still exists is called ReThink. Trisha Prabhu was 14 years old when she entered the Google science fair with an intervention, the software that would detect that what you are putting up on social media was probably going to be hurtful. When you pressed “Post,” it would just pop this one little interstitial up that said, “Hey, it looks like what you’re posting might be hurtful. Are you sure you want to post it?”
Ninety-seven percent of the initial test group -- and this test group, by the way, was adolescence (not exactly known for impulse control -- 97% were like, “Yeah, no, I’m not going to post that.”
Now, this tells us a couple of things. One, most people aren’t evil. They’re just thoughtless. It does not occur to them that there is a human being on the other side of that communication. The second they were reminded of that fact, they back off.
The other thing this tells us is it only takes two sentences to stop them. We’re sitting here lamenting the state of social media and saying it’s completely unfixable. Two sentences from a 14-year-old. I think we can do this.
Another thing you can use is question design. That organization I was telling you about before that gets people from opposite sides of the table to come to the same table and actually talk things out, one of their key tools in their tool case is question design.
If the issue is food deserts, areas in a city where there’s just no affordable healthy food anywhere, you might think a question you want to ask to get people to discuss is how can we get healthier food into the supermarket. As it turns out, this is a little bit of a controversial question and there are certain assumptions baked into it and there are some people who would not want to be a part of it.
What they might ask is how can we work together to shift consumer demand to healthier consumption. See what they did there? Shift consumer demand. If my main interest in food is monetary and you say the words “shift consumer demand,” I’m thinking you were introducing me to a market that I might be able to corner. Tell me more. How can I help?
Healthier consumption. If I live, work in the community. If I advocate for the community. Healthier consumption, yes, please, tell me more.
Everyone who you meet at the table can see themselves in the question. But that’s not even the best part.
The best part is the first few words: How can we work together? You cannot answer the question lest you also describe working together.
Let’s go back to our original question. How might this person drive this car? Well, what if we zoomed out a little more and we asked, “How do we do a better job of moving people around?” because that’s why she was in the car in the first place. She was here, but she wanted to be over there. And if we frame it this way, we can talk about things like public transportation.
Now, the key to taking those “should” questions and turning them into more inclusive “how” questions is to really dig deep and try to understand what is the why behind that question. Try to understand the goal of that proposed solution, and then you frame a “how” question around that goal.
For the person behind the car, why are you even asking about whether or not senior citizens should be allowed to drive cars? Well, presumably, you’re asking because you think that if you answer that question you can have safer transportation. Okay. Well, let’s just ask the question about safer transportation because if we answer that question, we’re going to get the answer to the senior citizen driving a car for free.
Now, a lot of this becomes complicated when we start talking about how do we have these conversations online. So many of these conversations have moved online to Zoom or other chat platforms.
I think part of the problem is we’ve tried to take those platforms and make them as much like real life as possible. I think that’s a mistake because they’re just not. It gets us focused on the wrong things.
What we could focus on is what can we do with those platforms that we can’t do in person. One thing we can do is time people.
As you may or may not know, although you likely know if you’ve been a woman in any of these meetings, there are people who tend to take up more oxygen in the room when these meetings happen. It occurred to me. Wouldn’t it be interesting if, at the beginning of a Zoom meeting -- and let’s say there are six people in this meeting and it’s an hour meeting -- what if we just said, “Okay. Everybody, you’ve got ten minutes.”
And as the meeting goes on and you use up your microphone, you see a little timer that’s filling up those ten minutes. When you hit your ten minutes, great, your mic goes off. Other people get to talk now.
This was just sort of a fanciful idea for a while. But then I found out that there is in fact an app out there called macro.io. The way it works is, as you’re chatting, your bubble gets bigger and bigger and bigger. And everyone can see you’re the one talking the most, and you can see it too.
And you can get reports afterward that list out, okay, here is who talked and how much they talked. Right? You can kind of shame people into being a little more giving of room to other people. But you can’t do this in a live, in-person meeting. Right?
Another thing I think that there’s an opportunity for is how we use chat when we’re in one of these Zoom-style meetings.
I went to a data and society meeting, and it was this online session with a speaker and all that. At the beginning of the session, they encouraged people not just to type into the chat, “Hey, where are you dialing in from?” but what’s your land acknowledgment?
Do folks here know what a land acknowledgment is? It’s not as big of a deal outside of the Western Hemisphere, but a land acknowledgment is basically you saying, “Hey, I live in Philadelphia, but you know who used to live here? The Lenni-Lenape people. Isn’t that fucked up?
That’s basically what you do, and there’s a map that can actually tell you. You click on it. It tells you whose land, whose unseated land are you currently occupying.
People would type in, use the tool, and be like, “Hey, I’m Dave. I’m in media PA. This land is unseated territory of the Lenni-Lenape.” People just did that.
Later on in that meeting, the question was asked of the larger audience. “Can you tell me a time when technology made you feel excluded?”
I was expecting people to be a little reticent. But boom! It was a firehose. People were just like, this, this, this, this, this.
My pet theory is that level of vulnerability. We were all able to share at the beginning by typing into that chat. It prepared us to then be like, “You know what? Let me tell you about the time that this forum didn’t have a field for how I identified.”
Again, trying to do that in an in-person meeting is almost impossible. We’d be here all day. But if you think about what you can do online that you can’t do in person, I think you get more out of the tool.
Now, currently, we have a very binary way of reacting to topics online. Vote up, vote down - that’s it. That’s the only reaction we can have.
But what if there was an ideate button that basically says, “Hey, I actually want to work on this problem.” If you could press it, what would it even do?
Well, in the real world, it might look like this. This is an exercise called 8 Up that I’ve practiced with a bunch of different companies.
Basically, the way it works is you get eight people in a room, and you have some kind of design question like, “How might we do a better job of moving people around?”
They say, “Okay. Everybody, write down three ideas for how we can do a better job of moving people around. You’ve got three minutes. Go.”
The three minutes are up. Oh, and by the way, you can write or you can sketch. Either way - just in light of earlier stuff.
The three minutes are up, and now everybody has got three ideas for how to do a better job of moving people around. Great.
Turn to your neighbor. Show them your three ideas. They’re going to show you their three ideas. Take those six ideas. Whittle them down to two ideas. You’ve got ten minutes. Go.
People have discussions.
Now, at the end of ten minutes, you’ve got pairs of people who each have two ideas. That’s great.
Pair number one, turn to pair number two. Show them your ideas. They’re going to show you their ideas. Take those four ideas. Whittle them down to two.
You can see where this is going. By the end, you’ve got eight people, four ideas total. Whittle them down to one, and that’s the idea.
Now, this is powerful because if you put eight people in a room and you say, “Hey, each one of you come up with an idea. We’re going to vote on the best idea,” you’re going to get a mediocre idea.
If you say, “Hey, eight people, I’m going to put you in this room. No one is getting out until you have one solid idea,” you’re going to get a mediocre idea.
But if you progressively combine the DNA of everybody in that room over time, you actually get a great idea.
Now, some of the advantages here, again, we were talking about those allowed talkers. This kind of mutes them because, remember, if you have the one person in the room (or maybe the highest paid person in the room), they only get to talk to no one in the first round, only one person in the second round, and by the time they can dominate the meeting, everybody else’s ideas are already baked into the final ideas.
And if everyone’s lived experience has a way to find its way into that final idea, when you finally say, “We need to do this idea,” you’re going to have much more buy-in because everybody can see themselves in that idea.
And if you do want to try this, I highly recommend you have both horizontal and vertical diversity in the room. What do I mean by that?
Horizontal diversity: Okay, marketing, yes. Development, yes. Legal, yes. Every department, bring them all in.
But also, vertical diversity. The highest-paid person, yeah, you’re here. Okay. It’s your first day on the job? Okay, you’re here too.
Now, this is literally a million-dollar idea. Back in the day -- and you can see how far back by looking at the Web design. Back in the day, Netflix said, “We will give you a million dollars if you can improve our search algorithm or our recommendation algorithm by like 10%.”
The winning team was in fact two different teams who realized they each had a piece of the puzzle and put it together. The second-place team was also two different teams who saw they had pieces of the puzzle and put them together.
Now, what does this look like online? It looks a lot of different ways, but one way I think is interesting to think about is vTaiwan.
Not too long ago, Taiwan was facing a new tax law that was going to give China more power over it. Not unlike some of the laws that got rolled out in Hong Kong. And for similar reasons, people were upset. There were protests. There were student protests, and the students actually occupied Taiwanese parliament.
Now, instead of bringing out the teargas, Taiwan decided, “You know what? Hey, person in charge of this demonstration, do you want to be in the cabinet? We’ll actually just create a position for you, cyber something-something, and you’re going to actually be part of the cabinet and help us figure this out.”
So, what they figured out is a process called vTaiwan, and it’s really fascinating. Please, please, please go down this Google rabbit hole.
Now, it’s a very complicated process, as you can see. But the upshot is that you find a way to put ideas and questions out into the larger audience and get, more or less, consensus feedback on what to do.
Now, there are two key design decisions they made which keeps this from turning into a rabblerousing town hall. The first decision has to do with the beginning of this process.
Let’s say the issue is ridesharing. In this case, in particular, Uber. Taiwan had the same issues with Uber that pretty much any country does, and they started putting statements out, statements like, “Hey, I think anybody who drives for Uber should have a license to do so.”
When you got this text or this message, you really only had three options. You could agree, you could disagree, or you could pass. What you couldn’t do -- and this is the key design decision -- what you couldn’t do is reply.
Now think about the power of that. If I’m a troll, and I want to get my jollies by replying with something horrendous and racist just to get you riled up and see your reaction, I can’t. There’s no reply button.
Or, as it turns out, if you didn’t like the idea and you had your own idea, you could absolutely add that to the mix. But again, people could only agree, disagree, or pass.
If I want to get you really angry by posting something horrific, I can’t. There’s no reply button. They added friction to trolling.
Now, the other key design decision they made was intended to incentivize consensus. Instead of seeing a list of, “Hey, here’s Bob. Here’s how he voted. Here’s Jane. Here’s how she voted.” Instead, you would see groups of people and which statements really resonated with different groups of people.
Let’s say the groups at the beginning were Uber drives, taxi drivers, Uber passengers, taxi passengers. You would see some statements that just Uber drivers agreed with or some statements that just taxi drivers agreed with. But you might sometimes see statements that two different groups agreed with or even three, and they would light up green. And you would feel good, especially if that was your statement.
Here's the thing. Really extremist statements would really, at best, only light up one group. But more nuanced, subtle, thought-out statements could light up two groups, three groups.
Now, as you move through this process, those four groups start to whittle down to maybe only two groups: pro- and anti-Uber. Eventually, you start to find statements that everybody agreed with.
This is one of them. This is a statement that both pro- and anti-Uber groups agreed with, which basically said, “Look. We think that taxis should have the same five-star rating system that Uber does because we think that’s one of the things that actually makes Uber good.”
And that’s exactly what they did. The solution they arrived at was to take Uber technology and put it in taxis. Now, that is a far more subtle and nuanced solution than I think you would ever get to by yelling about it on Twitter or by debating it out in parliament.
Now, Tom Atlee wrote a series of great blog posts about this. One of the things he said is that, for wisdom, we need to treat our differences as a resource. Instead of focusing on defeating an opponent, you focus on integrating their piece of the truth.
Put more simply: It’s the difference between generating winners and generating wisdom.
Now, one of the questions you have to ask yourself and be honest with yourself about is, does your business model support that? If you were building platforms for conversation, does your business model actually benefit from people actually arriving at consensus or does it benefit from people fighting all the time?
I bring this up for obvious reasons. Why haven’t the major social platforms already figured this out? I’m just a 48-year-old dude from Philadelphia. They’ve got world-class sociologists working for them.
Could it be that in fact their business model depends on people fighting? We need to be very honest with ourselves when we talk about if we’re going to implement this, what is the cost, and are we willing to think of a different business model that doesn’t rely on us fighting? Because if we do decide we want a place where people can talk, okay, there are actually design solutions for that.
Um... An interesting thing to think about when you’re doing all of this is a bandwagon effect. Basically, the idea is that we like to do what everybody else does. There were a series of experiments that showed just how strong this impulse is.
Basically, you show someone these two sets and say, “Hey, which one of those lines (A, B, or C) looks most like Exhibit 1?” What you find is most people, on their own, will be like, “Well, it’s kind of obvious. I mean, A.” Right? You know? A.
But that’s not how I ask. I put you in a room with seven other people, and I ask the other seven people first, and they all say B. So, by the time I get to you, you say, “B?” Right?
People they would talk to afterward would be like, “Well, I don’t know. I thought maybe I didn’t completely understand the question or I thought maybe they knew something I didn’t know.” Right?
Now, the important thing to remember about the bandwagon effect is that it only takes one other person in the room to give you the confidence to stand up and say, “A.” If even one other person out of those seven says, “A,” before we get to you, you’re much more likely to say “A.”
The phrase is courage is contagious. When you’re building systems like this, make sure that the decenters are able to have line of sight to each other or that nobody has line of sight to each other.
How many people here have been involved in a retrospective for a project? What are the questions we ask? What went well? What went wrong? What could we do better next time?
There are a few different ways to ask that question. I could ask it and have everyone raise their hand and say, “This, this, this,” when I’m asking, “Hey, what went well?”
If I do that and the highest paid person in the room raises their hand and says, “Well, I think this went great,” and you don’t think it went great, what are the odds you’re going to be able to feel free to say that at that moment?
Or I could say, “Hey, everybody, write down what you think went well and what you think we could do better next time,” and now I’ll just stick those up on the wall. Now we can actually see a gathering of those things and I lessen the likelihood that the bandwagon effect is going to mess all that up.
We’re going to run a little short on time here, so I’m going to have you come to me later and ask me about problem-based procurement because it’s awesome. But I do want to talk about this closing thing, which is a case study, a real true, true life story that kind of ties all this together.
Frances: not her real name - protecting the innocent, but this is a true person, true story. Frances facilitates meetings where people have to decide how to distribute millions in federal funding for an at-risk population in a major metropolitan city. The problem Frances has is that this group of people always spends the money the same way.
Now, at the beginning, that’s fine. people in need. They have this need. Let’s spend money on it.
But as you know, needs change. Over time, that group might need different things. But they don’t get that because we’re still spending the money the same way. It’s called status quo bias.
So, there are two ways they tackle this problem. One was by changing the agenda, and the other was by changing the space.
Now, the old agenda for this meeting is you’d have a whole big bunch of people, and they’d be given this big, massive document with budget figures and charts and graphs. Then they would walk through this big, giant document, and then there would be a Q&A session where nobody would ask any questions because they had just been handed a big, giant document. Then there would be this working budgeting lunch where people would try to make decisions, and they would basically make the same decisions they made for the past ten years.
The new agenda was a little different. It started out with a budget-free document. Remember what we said about money. It makes people antisocial. If you’re trying to spend money on an at-risk population, I don’t need you to be antisocial. So, we’re going to wait as long as possible before we actually bring up the money. Instead, the document just focused on needs.
Another key point is that before the meeting, there would be data training. When you see these charts and graphs, what should you actually be looking for? How should you read them? Some data literacy, so when you finally did get to see these charts and graphs, you knew how to engage with them. Then you would get to a Q&A session where the people would ask actual questions because they felt empowered to engage with this data.
Then they would do a version of the 8 Up exercise I described to really key in on what are the most important needs we need to focus on. Once they had that list of needs, they would sort them into money needs and not money needs because, as it turns out, not every need is in fact a money need.
Then they would have a non-working lunch. Now, this is very important for a couple of reasons. One, there’s a phenomenon known as decision fatigue. The way it works is every time you make a decision, it actually takes energy, real physical energy. The more decisions you make, the more tired you get, the worse and more risk-averse your decisions get.
This has actually been shown in the judicial system. They’ll have judges, and they would look at the food breaks for those judges. At the beginning of the day, the judges would have roughly 65% favorable rulings. That would drop and drop and drop to zero by the time it’s lunch. They would go have their lunch and then, miraculously, the favorable rulings would jump back up to 65% and then just keep dropping again throughout the day.
Have fun getting to sleep tonight, but the point is you don’t want people making decisions on an empty stomach, so they made sure that everybody ate first. The other reason this is really important, though, is the more human one.
These are people that don’t know each other. They really only ever see each other at this meeting. Lots of different people, lots of diverse stakeholders.
I need you talking to each other. I need you seeing each other as human beings. I need you eating lunch together so that you can make these more human decisions.
After all of that, then we finally get to the budget decisions. That’s just the agenda.
They also had to change the space. The space these meetings were in was crowded. There were too many chairs. Imagine a room half this size but there’s still just as many chairs. There’s no room to move. And when we don’t feel like we can move when we’re confined, we don’t feel very creative.
There were actually these very nice, really nice, big, giant windows to let in all the light, but nobody could get to them because it was too hard to move around. And the seating style was like this, lecture style, like everybody facing the stage, which is really not great for collaboration. And there was no green space. There was nothing alive in this room.
Basically, it didn’t feel like a space that was used by human beings. I think we’ve all been in these kind of meeting rooms that seem like they were built for computers to have meetings in.
Now, Frances read this book Joyful by Ingrid Fetell Lee, which talks about how environments affect behavior. She learned some things, and they implemented this. By the way, all in one day.
First, they just got rid of half the chairs. About 100 chairs in the room but only 50 people ever show up for this meeting. Guess what. Get rid of half the chairs. Now we can move around, and I can feel free.
Oh, and by the way, now I can get access to those nice, big windows. They put especially comfy chairs near the windows so maybe people show up a little early for that meeting, and they feel comfortable sitting down. Maybe they stay a little bit later. Again, they get to be more social.
The chair arrangement, rather than like this, becomes more semicircular so we can see each other and it’s better for collaboration.
And plants. There’s some actual life in this room.
My favorite detail is there was a coat rack that used to be in the back of the room. Nobody would ever use it because why do you put a coat rack in the back of the room.
So, they moved it to the front of the room, and then they kind of seated it with their work sweaters. So, people would walk in, see the coat rack, take of their coat, put it on there. It’s simple, right?
But what it did was it sent a signal from the moment you entered the room. This is a space that is used by human beings.
Now, all of those changes added up to, yes, in fact, they started changing how they did the budgeting. None of it, by the way, because this would be illegal, by saying, “Hey, everybody. We think this is how you should vote.” That’s the exact opposite of what their job was.
No, they didn’t do any of that. They just changed the environment so that they could come to conclusions not based on anger, not based on feeling confined, but based on human motivations. The space allowed them to be more human so they could then make decisions like a human.
“Marvelous technology is at our disposal and instead of reaching up for new heights, we try to see how far down we can go.” That’s Eric Bogosian in Talk Radio in the ‘80s. He was talking about radio, but he might as well have been talking about the Internet.
What I want to close with here is three rules we can try to follow if in fact we really do want to have these productive conversations.
The first rule: Neither of us has the answer. If we did, we would not need to have the conversation, and it assures that we are both going to learn something before this conversation is over.
Two: Neither of us will win. This can be kind of a hard one. But, no, neither of us is going to win this conversation. That’s not what we’re here for. And, not for nothing, winning doesn’t actually help. Winning just makes one of us feel better for a little while until the same problem rears its ugly head again because we were too busy winning to actually solve it.
Finally, we are here to create something new. This assumes the best in each of us and that we will be able to bring that out, to arrive at something that hasn’t been here before.
The next time you see somebody doing it wrong, ask yourself is there a “how” conversation to be had.