Always Draw The Elephant

I’ve noticed an anti-pattern in meetings, something to be avoided.

Perhaps you’ve heard the tale of the Three Blind Men and the Elephant:

Three wise men, blind with the frailty of age, were on a journey of discovery. Having never seen wondrous creatures like an elephant, they were delighted on their journey to come across an elephant and decided to experience it first-hand. In this case, literally, as the mahout allowed them to explore the elephant through touch. Afterward they headed to the tavern to drink and discuss their findings.

“The elephant,” the first wise man said, “is a great powerful snake, and smells of hay.” For, you see, he had been holding the animal’s trunk.

“No, no,” said the second man sharply, who had been stroking the animal’s flank. “The elephant is more like a great mountain of rough flesh, taller than a man, and smells of dirt!”

“You’re both idiots,” the third said. “The elephant is long and thin, and if you pull on it, you don’t want to know what you’ll smell like!” For this unfortunate had had a hold of the animal’s tail.

The moral of the story is not so much to avoid the rear end of elephants–though that might be good advice–as to point out that if all you have is a part of the picture you can be entirely wrong without even realizing it.

“Without realizing it” is crucial. In a pack of smart, self-aware thinkers, we do our best to take the other person’s point of view, to examine an issue from all sides. If we know we might be lacking information, we can hunt for it–but if we don’t, we can’t.

This comes into sharp focus when people form a team to brainstorm. Each is possessed of different knowledge–some true, some important, some relevant. The trick is to get all the true, important, and relevant knowledge visible and shared. The challenge is that, like each wise man, each subteam may think it has the complete picture.

So you get together in a room. People start making points. Other people start shooting down those points or pulling them apart with “yes but what if X” comments. In the end you spend a huge amount of time sharing the information: each team has to explain what they’re talking about, translating it to the language of every other team in turn. And then you spend a ton more time reconciling the information, as each team has to dissect each other team’s presentation, requiring a readjustment of possibly all other teams’ contributions as well. With two people it’s annoying; with six, it gets ridiculous.

This is where the slides come in. I can’t believe I’m saying that, because I’m supposed hate slides–but it’s not true. I love slides. I hate boring slide decks.

Slide presentations are a process; a ritual. They have a few specific purposes, and this is one of them: organizing information.

First, the slides are used for presenting. According to the ritual, the presenter gets to present, and the rest of the audience gets to ask questions–after the presentation (unless it truly is a clarifying question). This reduces the quadratic time to linear time, though possibly with a larger constant.

Then comes the reconciliation phase. At the very least, each person has seen–if not understood or integrated–everyone’s contributions. Perhaps they each have their own model, sketched out on a napkin or notepad during the other presentations, of how it all fits together.

Now all you have to do is reconcile these separate models, rather than doing pair-wise reconciliation or worse.

And that’s a huge win.

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The rise of the ad-hoc company

Some years ago (1998 or so), seeing the future looming, I hypothesized a move toward ad-hoc workgroups, forming and disbanding on the fly many times during the day. People would pull in their friends to solve problems or brainstorm or contribute, then go their separate ways, in groups that overlap and subset each other and generally are a lot more flexible than a traditional work group.

Wind forward a decade and a half, and the future has become a reality.

Ad-hoc Every Day

Every day there is a new attempt to enable this sort of workflow–which has, with a generation raised on constant SMS contact, become more familiar and more desirable. Google Hangouts, Facebook’s ubiquitous chat, and social review sites.

Want to build a website, but you aren’t the strongest at visual design? Chat up your graphic designer buddy for half an hour of chatting, or send him a feedback request on RedPen. Get feedback from more folks on Dribbble. Need to work on a thorny CSS problem? Pop it in JSFiddle or CodePen and get your buddies to bang on it. Post a tough question on Stack Overflow and get expert answers in minutes. Or just tweet about it, and have people chime in. All in a single afternoon.

(I’m in the design field, so the examples I have are centered around that. Are there these sorts of social review sites in your field?)

Got a longer project? Manage it on PivotalTracker or RedMine or Trello, letting collaborators come in and out on their own schedule, asynchronously. Host it on GitHub and leverage the entire ‘net–and let others build on your project.

These technologies enable all sorts of wonderful, opportunistic interactions, which make very efficient use of scarce, expert resources.

The ‘real world’ is a drag: money, property, and liability

But many (most?) employers are still not comfortable with this–and we haven’t quite worked out how to monetize it yet. There’s the wage-slave version with the Mechanical Turk, but for creative work, it’s more challenging.

While there are plenty of apps to track freelance time contributions, generally you still need to present a unified bill to a client, or have a single entity paid out by the distributor. Customers want to pay money to a persistent identity of some sort, even if the people behind the company name change.

Then you need to split the earnings among the team manually. (A bit like splitting the hoard after slaying a dragon, perhaps?)┬áDeciding who gets what share of the IP can likewise be challenging. Your graphic designer buddy–does he get a cut? How much? Or is it just noise, and you owe him one?

And there’s a lack of comfort on the legal side–who is liable for this work? How do you ensure a release schedule? Who knows about the work? How do you protect trade secrets in such an environment?

These issues have been worked out before–this is why corporations were invented. And for more fluid collaborations, there are plenty of models to draw on, from artist’s collectives to musical supergroups to publishing houses.

Maybe it’s time to encode some of this structure into a social website–a way to generate legally binding collaborations, even if it only lasts an afternoon.