Always take sides

We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. – Elie Wiesel

The Stockdale Paradox

Admiral Jim Stockdale, tortured in Vietnam for 8 years, on what got him through the hardest times:

I never lost faith in the end of the story. I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life, which, in retrospect, I would not trade.

And who didn’t make it through:

The optimists. They were the ones who said ‘we’re going to be out by Christmas’. And, Christmas would come and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. Then they died of a broken heart.

The paradox:

You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end – which you can never afford to lose – with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.

Several parallels to our current global fight against COVID-19…the perils of over-optimism and arbitrary deadlines, and the value of faith in ultimate victory.

Prosocial and cultural change

Prosocial is “a change method based on evolutionary science to enhance cooperation and collaboration for groups of all types and sizes that’s effective at a global scale.”

It combines Elinor Ostrom’s insights about the behaviors of effective groups with evolutionary science and theories of change–moving toward or away from goals, with visible and internal reactions–that can make existing groups more effective.

Prosocial was used to fight Ebola in Sierra Leone, where the facilitators worked with local people to create a new way of honoring the dead that didn’t cause more infections; and to design a new community park in Detroit.

Food and teams

Fascinating look into how one of the most successful coaches in the world builds team strength with carefully orchestrated meals:

I was friends with every single teammate I ever had in my [time] with the Spurs. That might sound far-fetched, but it’s true. And those team meals were one of the biggest reasons why. To take the time to slow down and truly dine with someone in this day and age — I’m talking a two- or three-hour dinner — you naturally connect on a different level than just on the court or in the locker room.

Design by inquiry: Can this be a question?

I recently started a new job with new brilliant, experienced colleagues, and it’s been difficult to make helpful contributions while I’m still learning about the problems we’re working on. Often when I propose a solution it turns out to be already considered and rejected, hopelessly naïve, or entirely misguided. And when asked for my opinion on the ideas of others, I sometimes freeze up and stammer out something noncommittal.

I’ve found that the most useful technique is to constantly ask myself, “Can this be a question?” Specifically, I take whatever proposal I was about to make, and turn it into a question for others.

For instance, if I think we should change a design element from blue to green, I might ask “How did we decide on blue for this?” or “How well is blue working here?” If that doesn’t lead anywhere, I could continue by asking “What are the goals of the color choices?” followed by “Would any other colors do that even better?”. Even if we don’t end up making it green, we’re likely to end up with some improvement, and I’m certain to learn something along the way.

Asking questions like this–something I call “design by inquiry”–has several benefits:

  1. It encourages others to share their thoughts and ideas, and puts them in a creative mode rather than a critical one. Often when people hear a strongly-presented idea they feel responsible for pointing out its flaws rather than building constructively on it. And design always benefits from more diverse perspectives.

  2. It gives the people with the most context–they’re asking the question, after all–the opportunity to answer it themselves. If an engineer comes to me with a problem, they’ve already started thinking about it. I’d like to hear what they’ve considered already, and what they feel might be best now.

  3. It can open up an overly-constrained problem to new opportunities. More often than not, the difficulty in design comes from solving the wrong problem, and restating the question gives everyone a chance to reframe the problem and make sure you’re still looking in the right direction.

In several ways, this is similar to the Socratic method, which is often employed in order to discredit a hypothesis or proposal, and sometimes characterized as “acting dumb”. However, design by inquiry comes from a place of open creativity and “actually being dumb”–as designers always are when starting a new project.

One of my mantras is “be the dumbest person in the room”–to make sure I’m always learning–and that means asking a lot of questions!

No more rock stars

This is a wonderful takedown of “rock stars” and stopping abuse–in the tech industry, but applicable to any field–by Leigh Honeywell. Some of my favorite points:

  • Have explicit rules for conduct and enforce them for everyone (of course, you say! But you still have to do it)
  • Insist on building a “deep bench” of talent at every level of your organization
  • Flatten the organizational hierarchy as much as possible
  • Avoid organizations becoming too central to people’s lives (when the job is all they have, people get crazy)

“Rockstar” in tech has become synonymous with narcissist. I avoid any contact with companies or teams who are looking for them.

A leader is best when people barely know that he exists, not so good when people obey and acclaim him, worst when they despise him. Fail to honor people, They fail to honor you. But of a good leader, who talks little, when his work is done, his aims fulfilled, they will all say, “We did this ourselves.” – Laozi, Tao Te Ching

Identity politics is breaking elections but might be able to fix government

An interesting discussion about our inability to choose the right candidates to make our lives better:

How do choices get framed? How do opinions get formed? A lot of it is people simply taking cues from political figures, from public figures, that they’ve identified themselves with one way or the other, whether they’re party leaders or the leaders of social groups or interest groups that they feel some attachment to…This idea that people have fixed or informed views about central issues doesn’t square with most of the data we have.

From the authors’ book “Democracy for Realists“, some data supporting the argument that “it’s the economy, stupid”:

“It is possible to account for recent presidential election outcomes with a fair degree of precision solely on the basis of how long the incumbent party had been in power and how much real income growth voters experienced in the six months leading up to Election Day.”

The authors attribute 2016’s strange elections to the inability of political “elites” to connect with voters, hence the rise of “outsiders”:

The biggest limitation at the moment is that we don’t know how to incorporate the role of political elites in a constructive way into the governing process or to somehow make it possible to ensure that they’re working on behalf of the interests of ordinary people.

But they propose that instead of breaking down “identity politics”, we need to acknowledge its importance and make it work better:

These group attachments are not some bad thing we do instead of being rational, well-informed creatures. They constitute who we are…We construct an interpretation of our lives, and we’re loyal to that and we find other people with similar views. That’s what human beings are like, and recognizing that seems to us a big step forward from the way we tend to think about politics now…

To do that, we need to better connect people’s identities and actions to the policymaking (e.g. what happens in Congress every day) rather than the elections (e.g. who you elect to Congress once every few years):

A lot of the actual ways in which people of ordinary education or ordinary means or just not much power, the ways in which they are disadvantaged are often occurring at the level of policymaking rather than at the level of elections themselves. The financial sector, for instance, is having a lot of policy success in Washington, in ways that ordinary people, if they really understood what was happening, would not approve. But they don’t follow it closely enough, they don’t understand, and the policy process is tilted toward moneyed interests that ordinary people have no chance.

So embrace your identities, but don’t stop with the voting booth–find ways to connect daily to the actual decisions that impact your life.

Teach courage, not caution

As far as the education of children is concerned, I think they should be taught not the little virtues but the great ones. Not thrift but generosity and an indifference to money; not caution but courage and a contempt for danger; not shrewdness but frankness and a love of truth; not tact but a love of one’s neighbor and self-denial; not a desire for success but a desire to be and to know.

Fear and loathing in U.S. politics

Fascinating in-depth look at the most interesting part of the Trump phenomenon–not the man, but the supporters.

What these policies share in common is an outsize fear of threats, physical and social, and, more than that, a desire to meet those threats with severe government action — with policies that are authoritarian not just in style but in actuality.

Essentially, fear of change (especially related to physical threats) leads to desire for authoritarian leadership.

Tribal techniques for global issues

I love this–traditional South African negotiating techniques were used to get a climate deal in Paris (and Durban in 2011):

An indaba is designed to allow every party to voice its opinion, but still arrive at a consensus quickly. It works because opinions and arguments can only be aired in a particular way:

Instead of repeating stated positions, each party is encouraged to speak personally and state their “red lines,” which are thresholds that they don’t want to cross. But while telling others their hard limits, they are also asked to provide solutions to find a common ground…

[In Durban in 2011] the South African presidency asked representatives from the main countries to form a standing circle and speak directly to each other.

A South African analyst explains the indaba process in more detail:

The draft text of the agreement is produced (by the chieftaincy, presidency, secretariat, etc. following extensive stakeholder engagement) and circulated. Those in support give automatic approval of the agreement and discussion ensues; those who agree during the discussion are incorporated in the agreement.

Those most affected or with immovable positions (simplified to key disagreement areas) discuss among themselves, arrive at a solution (this is a more facilitated session) and the solution is then incorporated into the wider agreement with changes acceptable to the whole collective – which is easier as everyone was part of the process and changes tend to be superficial, if any.

Interesting that some of its success comes from making the process more intimate and personal–while still keeping guidelines on the format. Hopefully the way we move decision-making forward includes learning from the history of different cultures like this.