One Day I Will Rule the World

World Domination, Babies and Middle Eastern Dance

May 22, 2012

Critical Thinking

One of the things I frequently say about hanging out with programmers and talented analysts is that they pride themselves on critical thinking – but are not very practiced creative thinkers or collaborators. So when there’s a problem on the table and someone suggests a solution, the critical thinker’s replies are usually about pointing out all the flaws they spotted or contingencies you didn’t think of.

Critical analysis consists of a “Yes, BUT” response, examining the assumptions of the statement. The alternative”yes, AND”, is more about collaboration, adding in variations, additional solutions or improvements.

To give you an idea of what these conversations look like, imagine that you say to your spouse (or partner or roommate), “Hey, what if we moved the couch to the other side of the room. I think that would give us more space.”

That suggestion isn’t supposed to be a full solution, it’s an opening to a discussion. There are too many implications for you to address them all before bringing up the idea. But when your spouse spots a negative implication, they can potentially bring it up with a “Yes, BUT”:

“Well then there wouldn’t be a logical place for the TV go to because the couch would be facing the doorway.”

Which would make most people defensive. It’s pretty much a straight-up rejection of the idea. Maybe you could save it by answering their criticism, but the conversation has already been staged for you to make suggestions and them to approve or disapprove. It’s not likely to suddenly turn collaborative after this.

Or, they could respond with a “Yes, AND”:

“Well, that would mean there isn’t a logical line of sight from the couch to the tv, but maybe we could put the TV on the side wall and put the chairs opposite it. Or maybe the TV doesn’t even need to go in the livingroom…”

Now it’s your turn to spot and solve some additional issues.

Household discussions are easy, because it’s just furniture. If you don’t like it, you can move it back. And hopefully you and your spouse have the kind of dynamics where their ego isn’t going to be threatened just because you thought of moving a couch and they didn’t.

I find that in technical fields, most of your compatriots will be people who grew up learning that they have skills in cleverness. Some people do their social commerce in charm, or humour, by which I mean that when they charm someone or make someone laugh, that’s when they feel socially valuable. And it’s not that analysts can’t do that, but their primary social commerce is in being clever.

An analyst will typically spend an intellectual conversation trying to spot the things other people don’t – whether that’s a solution or a hole in a solution. And so in a group of analytical types, any suggestion will basically face a firing squad from the rest of the room.

The problem with “Yes, BUT” is that it presumes that the answer will be arrived at by one person, it puts the onus on an idea to answer all problems inherently and immediately or else be discarded as invalid while each person in the room solitarily searches for “the” answer.

In a society that values objectivity and individuality, it’s probably inevitable that very few people are learning how to build on others’ ideas.

It’s something that bums me out, and that’s probably because I’m an ideas person. I have a defining memory from one morning working at The Menagerie, when a teammate came in for the morning and I greeted them excitedly, saying, “Oh! I had this great idea this morning that would make managing this site better and I wanted to discuss it with you,” and she laughed, “Oh Megan whatever you’re ALWAYS having ideas.” It wasn’t dismissive, it actually made me feel warm and fuzzy because it seemed to be said with some fondness and I was like, “ahaha, yep, you’ve got me figured out.” But also my team was really, really good for collaborative idea-building, so I never worried with them that ideas would be shot down without being given a chance to stretch their wings and test their assumptions.

But maybe my issue with it also stems from my having spent my formative years in an “advanced” academic program where we did creative problem-solving activities every day and had it drummed into us that creative problem solving is a fuzzy process, not a finite one. Its narrative runs like a dialogue, not a speech and you need to contribute things in way that safeguards the group’s momentum.

And maybe I think that society, in general, would benefit from some of that. I think that we don’t do enough to teach people how much of a high you can get from great collaboration. Schools and organizations don’t do much to build collaboration skills in their students and employees. Nor do we recognize that common workplace practices toward individual accountability and merit-based compensation actually make collaboration a liability.

Anyhow, when I’m in a discussion with someone and they respond to a suggestion with one of those analytical, “But that solution could cause problems with X,” without offering any alternatives or further solutions, I tend to give one of two responses.

If it’s not that important to have an immediate solution or it’s not that important for the solution to be collaborative, I’ll excuse myself from the whole thing. “Okay, that was just a suggestion. I’m sure you’ll think of something.” Which, admittedly, can be a little bit passive-aggressive, because of that element of, “if you can’t collaborate back then I’m not going to collaborate with you.” But if there’s a danger of tempers getting heated, it’s a lot better than staying in a conversation that’s likely to turn into a power struggle.

I will especially resort to that one if I suspect that the other person is blocking everything because of issues about their own ego. If they desperately need to be the one to find the solution, then I don’t think there’s any point fighting to get them to accept or value help.

However, if I think it’s important to continue approaching the issue as a team, I’ll ask a question that tries to force the Problem-Spotter to convert their problem into a diverging point in the conversation, rather than a stop. “Okay, what’s your assessment of that problem? Do you think it’s significant enough that you don’t want to pursue this idea any further? Or do you think it’s something we could tackle if we felt like the basic solution was a good idea?” Because, ultimately, I think most critical thinkers don’t see themselves as pissing all over other people’s good ideas. They just think they’re contributing their insights. They probably haven’t seen enough collaboration to understand the way that it flows and don’t have the experience to know that problems can be addressed in a way that preserves instead of blocking the momentum of the conversation.

As a side-note, I think I picked up a lot of these concepts from principles in improv theater and role-playing – where each contribution puts a direction on the scene and your contribution can either follow the direction that the last person set, or it can divert it. But if all you do is block the direction and make the next person decide where to divert it and pick up the momentum again, then you’re a jerk who’s making everyone else do all the work.

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