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Beth's recent rambly musings - The Revolution of the Moon
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Tue, Nov. 15th, 2011 05:10 pm
Beth's recent rambly musings

First, I adore this Jay Smooth video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MbdxeFcQtaU

I have found that the common theme among thinkers I've been paying attention to in many disperate fields is "remove punishments for inadvertent failure, while providing rapid and accurate feedback." In education, in science, in modeling, in economics, in government policy, in dismantling the kyriarchy, in creating community, in programming and in business this keeps coming up: "to create more successes, reduce the penalty for failure."
Humanity can parallelize; it is probably our greatest advantage, but we are also risk-adverse, so reward matters far less than punishment. As long as there is no punishment for failing (including significant marginal costs, like "I can't also hold down a job that pays my rent"), we will do things that offer no monetary reward whatsoever and, in fact, we will be more likely to do them than if we were paid for the activity. Funny that.

Second, this doesn't just apply to the person who is attempting something; it also involves reducing the penalty people around them must bear when they fail. Make feedback easy and low-judgment, but make it required and expected that such feedback will be listened to. To maximize potential successes in a community, do censure or exclude people who fail to listen to or accept feedback; their contributions can not possibly make up for the drain their self-centered, inflexible approach will put on the people around them. Effective cultural norms are key for general productivity.

Third, much of making that possible comes down to a culture of safety and sufficiency. People are empathetic when they aren't afraid. People are productive when they aren't afraid. People listen to novel viewpoints when they aren't afraid their own will be ignored, and they accept them as accurate when they aren't afraid that they must hold on to a false world view in order to maintain their sense of self.
However, fear is not rational, so it can not be contingent on people who scare other people to absolve their fears. It, instead, requires mutual effort and cooperation, and a willingness to tolerate fear with confidence that doing so can make individual lives better. The best way to make this happen is to reduce the penalty for failure, especially for people around them. One person who is afraid and lashes out should not be allowed to stop a conversation from happening or avoid feedback, any more than a two year old who throws a fit should be allowed to eat all the ice cream they want. Fear can be reduced by not indulging it.
In order to get to that culture, you have to first come up with some enforcement mechanism that keeps the people who are used to dominating a conversation and erasing other people's experiences from doing so. As soon as one person does so and isn't given immediate feedback, it breaks the culture. Unfortunately, some people are afraid of enforcement mechanisms themselves: I think that scuttles the possibility of collaborative progress all together. If participants aren't willing to make themselves mutually vulnerable, it is all but impossible to collaborate.
It must also be understood that individual realities do conflict, especially at first glance. It isn't until after deconstructing the assumptions and subjective interpretations that it may become clear where common ground lies, and even then there will be times when needs conflict. Pretending they don't, though, is never the solution. Neither is asserting that one need is inherently more important than another (often people bringing up needs are actually implying this: "you shouldn't get X, because I need Y". You can avoid Olympics by confronting this when it first happens.) I have come to believe that allowing both their own space, usually separate from one another, in which to have those needs addressed is part of the culture of sufficiency.
A culture of sufficiency requires patience. People's attention is actually scarce. It either requires a commitment from all participants to take as long as it needs to take, while simultaneously respecting the time and attention when they do have the floor, or it requires parallelizing concerns. There are numerous solutions to this: volunteer facilitators who are willing to listen and synthesize, DKP-style speaking points, repeated conversations (prisoner's dilemma played infinitely can produce the mutually-beneficial outcome), un-conference-style "vote with your feet" combined with respect and curiosity, progressive stack, good moderation, or just Radical Fairy-style retreats where what else are you going to do? It doesn't matter what the solution is, as long as there is one and all participants sign on to it.
Finally, such a culture requires validating that not everyone lives in a culture of sufficiency, and realizing that the first step towards productive collaboration is often addressing those insufficiencies. This may involve addressing basic needs, dismantling oppressive structures, creating new spaces away from those structures and being willing to exclude yourself. If one isn't willing to let people have space away from one's self, that's an important fear to unravel and probably part of why ones presence would be disruptive in that space. In the case of programming addressing these concerns often involves being willing to go slower at first, and being willing to say "no" a lot, in addition to adding trust to every member of the team.

And fifth, one of the things that should not be punished is honesty. Once failure no longer carries stigma and punishment, there is little reason to lie to cover up failures, but even so it is worth going out of your way to cultivate honest and open knowledge sharing, in non-derailing ways. Again, it is about taking advantage of humanity's capability to parallelize.

Rapid feedback, frequent low-consequence failures and a culture of sufficiency support productive collaboration. You can't fake any of these things, but I am having moderate success with cultivating them in my personal life simply by recognizing when they are missing. Sure, I still run into cultural conflicts, and I am far, far from perfect, but failure leads to learning. Being a good person is, as Jay Smooth says, a practice, not a state of being.