Thursday, April 12, 2012

“How to argue productively”

This title (but shortened, from an article in attracted the writer, who thought it wouldn’t be surprising if the author is from Brown. “Daniel Sobol is a design strategist at Continuum, where he draws on his background in the performing arts and anthropology to learn from people, tell their stories, and design solutions to improve their lives. He holds a BA with honors in performance studies from Brown University”. . . And as a consultant the writer would straightway share the article with his Eastern European friends, especially because it is about innovation.

At Continuum, we use deliberative discourse--or what we fondly call “Argue. Discuss. Argue. Discuss.” Deliberative discourse was originally articulated in Aristotle’s Rhetoric. It refers to participative and collaborative (but not critique-free) communication. Multiple positions and views are expressed with a shared understanding that everyone is focused on a common goal. There is no hierarchy. It’s not debate because there are no opposing sides trying to “win.” Rather, it’s about working together to solve a problem and create new ideas.

So we argue. And discuss. And argue. A lot. But our process is far from freeform yelling. Here are five key rules of engagement that we’ve found to yield fruitful sessions and ultimately lead to meaningful ideas.

1. NO HIERARCHY – Breaking down hierarchy is critical for deliberative discourse. It’s essential to creating a space where everyone can truly contribute. My first week at Continuum, I joined a three-person team with one senior and one principal strategist. A recent graduate, I was one of the youngest members of the company. During our first session, the principal looked me in the eye and said, “You should know that you’re not doing your job if you don’t disagree with me at least once a day.”

2. SAY “NO, BECAUSE” – No is a critical part of our process, but if you’re going to say no, you better be able to say why. Backing up an argument is integral in any deliberative discourse. And that “because” should be grounded in real people other than ourselves.

3. DIVERSE PERSPECTIVES – We’ve all heard of T-shaped people and of multidisciplinary teams. This model works for us because deliberative discourse requires a multiplicity of perspectives to shape ideas. We curate teams to create diversity.

4. FOCUS ON A COMMON GOAL – Deliberative discourse is not just arguing for argument’s sake. Argument is productive for us because everyone knows that we’re working toward a shared goal.

5. KEEP IT FUN – We work on projects ranging from global banking for the poor to the future of pizza and life-saving medical devices. Our work requires intensity, thoughtfulness, and rigor. But no matter the nature of the project, we keep it fun.”

The writer appreciated the fullness of university life visiting Brown during parents’ weekends and sitting in lectures; and the one about Mozart was great cultural edification, for example. But the daughter who proudly managed the school cafeteria would rather take the parents to the “right restaurants: elegant; refined; exquisite; sumptuous.” And with a broad smile one day she would say that she wrote restaurant reviews for the school paper. It would put her in good stead; today she teaches newspaper writing in a Manhattan charter school, with math being her other load. The Brown experience brought the writer down to earth – that he didn’t have the aptitude to get into the school; nor the writing skills, and confirmed by the daughter. He met kids whose academic interests were simply too out-of-this-world, he thought. One went to Sofia University; another went to Syria; one would write for the Discovery Channel; there was an architect who took up medicine; a Sotheby curator who earned his PhD from Princeton; and one who worked in a French design house. These kids knew the future better than the writer; and it’s much wider yet a very small world. And their starting point? NO HIERARCHY . . .

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