Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Article: Egos Stop Innovation; How to Have a Discussion

Any academic professional, from a software architect to a physicists, is at their peak innovative performance when they can effectively communicate, discuss, and refine their ideas with others.

Unfortunately, it seems that a large number of people are more concerned with their own egos than with innovation, as evidenced by their inability to communicate with others. It seem that these people are always irrationally attacking ideas that are not their own while taking an emotional bias towards ideas that are their own.

This is a natural thing for people to do. It is in our blood. We evolved from the genes of the top-dog alpha-males and their mating successes.

But today should be different. The human race is now capable of attaining much greater heights if we work with others instead of against them.

Take Quantum Mechanics, for example. Quantum Mechanics was not the invention of a single mind quietly working away. No. It is the hard won innovation that resulted from many great minds working together to solve a common goal.

So how can we keep from being the jerk down the hall that no one wants to work with, and help to further the innovations of yourself and your company, making your managers happy and helping you to attain popularity, love, and wealth?

I Like Friends

Let's try to learn by example.

I had two friends that, through countless discussions and debates, showed me most of what I know about a successful exchange of ideas.

One of these friends was infuriating clam and methodical in his approach, but his goal was always to lead to a common understanding of the truths behind the material we discussed.

The other of these friends was irrational and stubborn, always hanging onto his idea no matter how well it could be proved false, and then would stomp off in a hissy fit whenever he was defeated.

What I learned from all this is contained in the ten rules below; but before I go there I wanted to follow my own rules and define two terms. These definitions aren't the dictionary definitions of these terms, but as long as you can understand my definition then you can follow what it is I'm trying to say.

Defining Talking

The way I see it, there are essentially two ways to exchange and refine ideas with others: discussion and debate.

I define "discussion" to be the friendly and logical open exchange of ideas, where the goal of everyone involved is to reach a new, common understanding of the material, knowing that this will most likely be different than any of the ideas brought to the table by anyone there.

On the otherhand, I define "debate" to be what happens when a discussion breaks down into egos and arguing, caused by even just one person to not want to budge from their flawed arguments, leading to an overall breakdown of the process of innovation.

The Ten Commandments

These rules take practice and hard work to follow, but following them is important not just to others, but to yourself as well.

One last thing before I start, though: I should note that rules 1-3 are mostly concerned with how to hold yourself, rules 4-7 are about communication, rules 8 and 9 are about arriving at a conclusion, and rule 10 is stating an obvious fact that people seem to forget about in the heat of a debate.

So without further ado, on with the show!

1.Be civil; always treat other people with respect and dignity.

People will only take you seriously if you treat them like an intelligent human being. If you let your frustration take over, you run the risk of insulting another person, causing them to close themselves from your point of view, destroying the whole process.

2. Place your ego aside; readily admit when you are wrong.

I doubt the knowledge you bring to a discussion is without flaws, inaccuracies, and other mistakes. Therefore you need to know and admit the limits of your knowledge. Admitting when you are wrong is probably the biggest and hardest step for people, but being ready to admit when your idea just isn't right is an important part of innovation. Put another way: don't let yourself look like an idiot by defending a lame-duck idea to the bitter end. People just won't ask for your input anymore because no one likes a self-centered, stubborn donkey!

3. Be open to new and different ideas; put yourself in the shoes of others.

Great thinkers are able to view things from many points of view other than their own. You do want to be like a great thinker, right? It is important, then, that you put yourself into the shoes of people presenting alternative (and usually contradictory) ideas and try hard to understand why they support that idea. This can help you either rebut their idea, accept their idea, or realize that there is no way to agree.

4. Make sure everyone agrees as to what the question really is.

As stupid as it seems, I have seen (and been in) many discussions or debates where each person thought a different question was trying to be answered! This, of course, causes much frustration. If it seems like the other person isn't understanding, try rephrasing what it is you are trying to find out, and see if they agree that that is the question at hand.

5. Define terms; be vigilant of disagreements caused by different definitions.

One of the funny things that often happens is that communication break downs can be the cause of many long discussions where everyone actually agreed the whole time. For example, I was in a debate with someone once where, after three hours, we found out that we were using slightly different definitions of the word "money". Once we hammered out a common definition, we suddenly found that we never disagreed on the real question at hand! This happens more often than one would think! So be vigilant of disagreements stemming from different definitions of terms and try to nip them in the bud.

6. Listen patiently and carefully to what others say.

This is really a two fold problem. One is that people get in such a hurry to say what is in their mind that they stop listening to what everyone else is saying and just want to blurt out their own thoughts. But listening turns out to be one of the most important skills in innovation. So don't be a jerk, listen up! The other part of this is that people naturally interpret, filter, and infer the words of others. It is important to pay attention to detail and make sure you understand what they mean and to ask questions when you don't understand.

7. Say what you mean.

There seems to be some sort of mangle-o-matic filter between the brain and the mouth. Be careful to say what you mean, try to make statements that don't leave anything to inference, and be willing to re-explain yourself in different terms if someone is confused as to what you meant. (Seems simple? It is harder than you'd think!)

8. Strive to reach the crux of any disagreement.

In order to reach resolution on a disagreement, it is important to find the crux of what it is, exactly, that you disagree on. It is no fun spending three hours hammering over a topic just to find that the crux of the disagreement lay in a misunderstanding of a word definition. Pealing away the layers to reveal the point of disagreement quickly will save everyone a lot of time, energy, frustration, and headache.

9. Discussions hinging on personal values are doomed to become debates.

Some discussions have no agreeable resolution. This is especially true of many socio-political discussions. When the crux of a disagreement hinges on a personal value or opinion, there is no way to agree. Whether it be a disagreement over something as stupid as the best flavor of ice-cream or the best band ever, or it be over deep issues such as abortion, gay marriage, and the validity of your own religion, there just isn't an answer that everyone can agree on. This doesn't mean that you can't understand and respect what the other person believes, but it means that you'll probably never agree, and so should agree to disagree.

10. Use logic, facts, and reasoning.

This should go without saying, but it doesn't seem to be the case. People cloud their reasoning with emotion. This is, once again, part of being human. But if you want to convince someone of the validity of a viewpoint, you must always support that with facts and logical reasoning, while being careful to avoid such traps as logical fallacy, inaccurate facts, and mis-representation of your knowledge limits. (But if you follow the other 9 rules, none of this should happen to you, right?)

Every Article Needs A Conclusion

So there they are, in all their glory. Some simple rules that take a lot of hard work to follow; but will quickly make you that innovative, team-playing, cool-guy, that everyone wants to have on their team and at their parties.

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