Thursday, 14 July 2016

Hacking Conversation

Over the last two days, I've just been involved in a Hackathon for finding solutions to the problems of care homes. It's been an interesting experience, and one which I'm reflecting on as I am also involved in a project to run another Hackathon for Patient Safety in November. Although there was an emphasis on producing "solutions" to "problems", the most valuable thing about it has been (unsurprisingly) the conversations. In terms of solutions and problems, in my case, I have come away distinctly sceptical: are there definable 'problems'? Is there a solution?

Whilst listening to the 'pitches'  at the event, I was often aware of the kind of behaviour that is described in Cohen and March's "Garbage can" model of organisational decision-making. Essentially, what tends to happen is that the really difficult problems that need to be talked about are deemed too difficult to talk about, and in their place discussants rummage around in the "garbage bin" of possible tools or interventions which might address a 'do-able' intervention. So the important things get left behind in pursuit of deciding to do something, and solutions are found to problems which are essentially defined by the technologies chosen to address them. So the webcam on the door solves the problem of identifying a person looking into a camera while they are stood at the door; the hearing test app solves the problem of delivering a hearing test when you're carrying a phone; etc. But what about the important stuff?

What really interested me was the dynamics of the conversations within the groups. There were all kinds of individuals there; some with experience of caring, some with experience of managing care, some with experience of developing tools, some with experience of business, and so on. Each person has a particular world-view which they bring to proceedings. If one were to draw these world views, it would look something like this:

It tends to be either the top or the bottom of the diagram which manifests itself - people are either open to be confused and generally open to possibilities, or they come with a set of categories which are quite firm as their way of viewing the world. There tends to be a disconnect between the holistic thinking and the categories. Some with specific categories will not admit to any vagueness in their position; some with open positions will object to over-specification of categories. The diagram represents different levels of constraint on thinking; fixed categories and certain opinions produce predictable regularities of behaviour and response which suggest rigid constraints. Vague philosophical positions manifest as unpredictable and often creative behaviour which indicate less constraint. Both groups may be open to moving to a middle position which admits some confusion with some defined categories.

Tension in a group emerges in a number of different ways,. Two people with fixed ideas can have very different ideas, and an ideological conflict ensues. A holistic thinker may be frustrated by the rigid thinker and questions them about their certainty, whilst the rigid thinker asserts their categories. Each person has a model of the others contextualised within their own model of the world. So the holistic thinker will know that the rigid thinker needs to become less certain of their categories, so they will question them. The rigid thinker will believe the holistic thinker to be wasting time or not focusing, and will demand concentration on a particular issue for which the rigid thinker already knows the categories. This forceful increasing of constraint can cause problems and tension, just as the holist's questioning can be unsettling for the rigid thinker. However, it is more complicated still. Because whilst the holist will reject some rigid categories, they will have other rigid categories which they will defend vigorously. Typically, a third dynamic is necessary to address this conflict situation.

A third person is able not only to observe the nature of another individual, but also the dynamic of the interaction between two other people. This knowledge of the dynamics as constraints shift up and down, tensions are exposed, and so on, provides the critical extra dimension for reaching some sort of cooperation. It helps if at least one person in a group of three has a richer model of complexity which maps more precisely the relationship between a set of rigid concepts and holistic vagueness. Typically this person will be a teacher, and whether they consider themselves such or not, they will the chief coordinator of the discussion. The map of the interconnection of ideas at different levels will at least provide them with the means of steering a discussion where gentle increases and decreases in constraint become possible. When I've found myself in this role, I've found my knowledge of cybernetics extremely valuable.

It is possible to map out these conversations as a kind of 'tetralogue' (I should do this!). In reading the constraints operating on other participants, one trick is to discover some other constraint bearing upon a 'rigid' person which might account for their way of thinking, but not in the way that the rigid thinker would want to admit (they believe their categories are perfectly rational and unarguable): then a powerful question might be asked which throws the rigid person into confusion causing them to reorient their thinking. For example, "What happened to your dad when he was in the care home?" With everyone in a state of disorientation, then concepts can be reformed.

There are probably some more specific categories which belong to this model of conversation!

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