The other day, I linked to a TED video by Kathryn Schultz about how we avoid thinking about the possibility that we are wrong. Here is a link to Kathryn’s video. The same idea underlies Bruce Schneier’s TED talk about the differences between real and perceived security. Here is a link to Bruce’s video. They got me thinking about certain risks that we face in building and using shared spaces.
Think about it. Steve Williams, Matt Ridley et al tell us that we come up with more and better ideas when we share our ideas in groups. Right. The era of the heroic genius saving the world while he tinkers away alone in his basement is over. Hurray! Instead, all we need to do is to get into groups and start talking. Right? Wrong. According to Kathryn and Bruce, things may be just a bit more complicated than that.
Why? Because introducing the variable into the shared space model of people being certain but wrong makes it … well …. weird. Consider this. With this wild card in play, there are at least two very different types of sharing that can take place. The first type is easy, quite common and problematic. The second type sounds better, but may not be so easy.
In the first type, we go into the group looking for confirmation that we are right about something. That may be ok — if we actually are right. And even then, there are certain problems with the approach. But as Kathryn and Bruce point out, being wrong feels just like being right. Oops. So while sharing opinions may make us feel better about them, it doesn’t necessarily help the group test whether the opinions are right. Disastrously, the conversation may get the group to converge in a frenzy of passion on a wrong opinion. Sieg Heil! Moreover, when we look for confirmation in a group, we tend to do it by making assertions. Another Oops. When we do that, we risk getting into conflict with people in our group who enthusiastically hold the opposite opinion or just get grumpy about the way things are going. These are not great results from using shared space. But I see them happen a lot in bars and cafes … errr …. and in meetings, conferences and classrooms. Hmmm … perhaps that is why Steve Johnson was so enthusiastic about the introduction of the coffee house as an alternative to pubs that took place a long time a go.
Of course, we should go into the shared space instead to talk about testing out new ideas (a second type of shared space use) rather than just to assert opinions. We might think of this shared space as a “laboratory” space. This seems to offer us more possibilities for the simple reason that we do not presume that our thoughts are correct when we share them. We may still feel certain and be wrong, but at least we say we open for testing. Ok. From Kathryn and Bruce’s perspectives, this is essential to get us off to a good start. But there are certain other presumptions about this setting that could pose problems, even if we promise to be good boys and girls and cooperate rather than vent, argue and pout.
First, it presumes we have ideas to share. We can only get started in our lab work when someone has an idea worth testing — not just a set of opinions. As Kathryn points out, the more we value being correct, the less likely that we will generate testable ideas at all. Or as Seth Godin points out
As soon as you say, “failure is not an option,” you’ve just said, “innovation is not an option.”
Here is that link. So we have a learning issue — we need to re-learn the value of failure (being wrong) before we can generate new propositions worth testing. Ok, let’s be honest. Do we really value failure? And how often do we generate new propositions for testing? Where do they come from? Very good questions, I think. And they are questions that are not so easy to answer. At least not for me.
Second, it presumes that the sharing will be stimulating. We need to get energized before we can get results from shared space. Dan Pink calls this getting “engaged”. But what does getting engaged look like? In the old paradigm, the heroic genius tended to work alone in the basement with that weird gleam in his eyes because his excitement made him less successful in groups. Like Dr. Frankenstein. Well, surprise, surprise, we need Frankenstein’s engagement but without the weirdness. Ooops. It is very easy to get engaged in argument about opinions (especially after a few beers). But in laboratory shared space, we need to get engaged in shared testing. Hmmm …. just how do we generate excitement in the lab? Good question. It can be done, but it doesn’t happen automatically. And as champions of better use of shared space, we need to learn how to do it on a regular basis.
So there are at least two major, major learning challenges for making shared space productive. (1) To generate propositions worth testing and conversations about them, and (2) To generate engagement in testing rather than argument for argument sake. Hmmm … where do I sign up for courses on those things? Perhaps the Harvard Innovation Center? Or are these more mentoring issues?
As I thought about this, I was reminded of Orson Wells’s movie The Third Man. In the movie, cowboy romance writer Holly Martins gets into endless difficulties trying to figure out how his friend died. The problem is that his friend wasn’t dead at all. Worse still, he turned out not really to be a friend at all. But blinded by his romantic attitude, poor Holly stubbornly refuses to see any of this until he gets hit over the head by the facts. BTW, Joseph Cotton plays the role of Holly Martins brilliantly. Hmmm … we can think of Holly Martins as a metaphor for our own shared space problem. He is loaded with opinions but makes an absolute hash of every shared space he enters.
Wells liked playing these kinds of tricks on his characters. One minute they are 100% sure of something. Then they find out they were wrong. Not just a little wrong. Disastrously wrong. The moment of discovery, or epiphany makes the story interesting, even if it is sad. The recognition also makes possible a new sort of shared space. Hey! Perhaps Wells was onto something!
FOLLOW - More on story telling (BTW, a tool that helps make shared spaces work). One might compare the story generation strategies of Wells and Hitchcock. Both were fascinated by enormous errors as the foundation of the story line. In Wells’s stories the mistakes usually come from an attitude problem (consider, for example, John Foster Kane or Holly Martins). Hitchcock’s characters are usually more “normal” (like the family group in The Birds). Their mistake is in feeling safe (Bruce Schneier has some thoughts on that). From Kurt Vonnegut’s perspective, Hitchcock’s strategy in generating sympathy for characters may be more a more effective way to draw the audience into the shared space of the story. But the characters’ plight in being wrong about what is going on makes the story work.
2d FOLLOW - We might compare the above story telling strategies with how we value the life stories of “great” historical figures. Generally, we celebrate how these people got something right. For example, how Churchill was right about fascism. Or how Roosevelt was right about how to cope with the depression. Or how Gandhi was right about Indian independence. Or how Lincoln was right about slavery. And so on. I do not mean to devalue the contributions of the great and mighty here. But I would ask a question. Does our love of these stories reflect also our limited capacity to understand how to generate new story lines and share space by reducing our sympathy for failure?
3rd FOLLOW - In light of the above, consider the words of Oscar Wilde’s character Sir Robert Chiltern in his climactic speech to the House of Commons in the play “An Ideal Husband” that was retrofitted into a very good movie by director Oliver Parker
… As we stand at the end of this most eventful century, it seems that we do after all, have a genuine opportunity. One honest chance to shed our sometimes imperfect past. To start again. To step unshackled into the next century. And to look our future squarely and proudly in the face.
Chiltern makes the speech to condemn a corrupt scheme, believing (wrongly) that his speech will lead to his own exposure for long ago revealing state secrets for personal profit. “Shedding our sometimes imperfect past” is a rather gentle but firm condemnation of self-righteousness which BTW is the mistake that is at the core of the story line. But I like the idea of stories starting over again. In this case, with a gift of courage in the face of a perceived pending failure (errr …. even though the perception was wrong).
4rth FOLLOW - In his TED talk, Bruce Schneier makes a number of interesting points about the “trade offs” we make when we decide whether to try to enhance our security. We make good choices when our feelings of security match the reality of the risk. But in our modern world these often diverge and we often make poor trade offs. This is why we need models that enhance our ability to decide about risks. And he makes the good point that institutions have strong interests in manipulating our thinking about models. This vocabulary is useful for understanding challenges in making shared space more productive. We should recognize that our decisions on whether to share space also are part of a trade off. We give up independence to get value added from sharing our thoughts (we might call that value higher cognitive capacity). But our feelings about that higher cognitive capacity may not match the reality and so we need models to help us judge the value added. My chit chat about the value of gifting and story telling is about building the model. Great! — so how well do we understand modeling? Hmmm … sounds like another learning challenge to me.