The Search for Unintended Consequences

Any idiot can build a system. Any amateur can make it perform. Professionals think about how a system will fail.  It’s very common for people to think about how a system will work if it is used the way they imagine. But they don’t think about how that system might work if it were used by a bad actor or a perfectly ordinary person who is just a little different from what the person designing it is like.

Companies need to be thinking about how each product could actually be used in the real world. If you build a product that works great for men and is going to lead to harassment of women, you have a problem. If you build a product that makes everyone’s address books 5 percent more efficient and then gets three people killed because it their personal information to their stalkers, that’s a problem.

What you need is a very diverse working group that can recognize a wide range of problems, that knows which questions to ask and has support inside the company and in the broader community to surface these issues and make sure they are taken seriously. If they’re in there from day one it makes a huge difference.

Former Google engineer Yonatan Zunger in an interview with NPR

We're all a Mess

I have spent the past five years peeking into people’s insides. I have been studying aggregate Google search data. Alone with a screen and anonymous, people tend to tell Google things they don’t reveal to social media.

While spending five years staring at a computer screen learning about some of human beings’ strangest and darkest thoughts may not strike most people as a good time, I have found the honest data surprisingly comforting. I have consistently felt less alone in my insecurities, anxieties, struggles and desires.

Once you’ve looked at enough aggregate search data, it’s hard to take the curated selves we see on social media too seriously. Or, as I like to sum up what Google data has taught me: We’re all a mess.

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz writing in the New York Times

Focusing on the Bright Spots

Suppose that you go to bed tonight and sleep well. Sometime, in the middle of the night, while you are sleeping, a miracle happens and all the troubles that brought you here are resolved. When you wake up in the morning, what’s the first small sign you’d see that would make you think, “Well, something must have happened – the problem is gone!”

The miracle question doesn't ask you to describe the miracle itself; it asks you to identify the tangible signs that the miracle happened. Once (someone has identified) specific and vivid signs of progress... a second question is perhaps even more important. It's the Exception Question: "When was the last time you saw a little bit of the miracle, even for just a short time?"

There are exceptions to every problem and that those exceptions, once identified, can be carefully analyzed, like the game film of a sporting event. Let's replay that scene, where things were working for you. What was happening? How did you behave? That analysis can point directly toward a solution that is, by definition, workable. After all, it worked before.

Chip & Dan Heath, Switch

Focusing on the Bright Spots

Suppose that you go to bed tonight and sleep well. Sometime, in the middle of the night, while you are sleeping, a miracle happens and all the troubles that brought you here are resolved. When you wake up in the morning, what’s the first small sign you’d see that would make you think, “Well, something must have happened – the problem is gone!”

The miracle question doesn't ask you to describe the miracle itself; it asks you to identify the tangible signs that the miracle happened. Once (someone has identified) specific and vivid signs of progress... a second question is perhaps even more important. It's the Exception Question: "When was the last time you saw a little bit of the miracle, even for just a short time?"

There are exceptions to every problem and that those exceptions, once identified, can be carefully analyzed, like the game film of a sporting event. Let's replay that scene, where things were working for you. What was happening? How did you behave? That analysis can point directly toward a solution that is, by definition, workable. After all, it worked before.

Chip & Dan Heath, Switch

10 Things to do when people bring you their problems

1. Empathize with hurt feelings.

2. Reflect a genuine concern.

3. Offer a summary of the problem as you see it.

4. Be slow to give advice. Let the other person come to the best decisions themselves whenever possible.

5. Distinguish between causes and symptoms.

6. Keep confidences.

7. Wisely use questions. Especially open-ended and indirect questions. Use “why” sparingly.

8. Watch your body language.

9. Be willing to refer the person to someone else more qualified when the problem is beyond your abilities or knowledge.

10. Ask the person how he or she is doing a few days later. Let the person know you haven’t forgotten about them and you care. Their situation is important to you.

Stephen Goforth

The Outgoing Basket

The head of a small firm who had a great many difficulties in establishing his business told me that he was immeasurably helped by a technique which he invented. He had trouble, he said, with the tendency to "blow up" a small difficulty into a seemingly insurmountable obstacle. He knew that he was approaching his problems in a defeatist attitude, and had common sense enough to realize that these obstacles were not so difficult as he made them appear to be. As he told the story, I wondered if he did not have that curious psychological difficulty known as the will to fail.

He employed a device which reconditioned his mental attitude and after a time had a noticeable effect on his business. He simply placed a large wire basket on his office desk. The following words were printed on a card and wired to this basket, "With God all things are possible." Whenever a problem came up which the old mechanism of defeat began to develop into a big difficulty, he threw the paper pertaining to it into the basket marked "With God all things are possible" and let it rest there for a day or two. "It is queer how each matter when I took it out of that basket again didn’t seem difficult at all," he reported.

In this act he dramatized the mental attitude of putting the problem in God’s hands. As a result he received power to handle the problem normally and therefore successfully.

Norman Vincent Peale, The Power of Positive Thinking

Assertive v Aggressive

While aggressive behavior injures in order to win, assertive behavior focuses, not on winning as such, but on negotiating reasonable changes in the way both parties behave so as to equalize the balance of social power. The purpose of assertive speaking-up is usually to solve an interpersonal problem.

But assertiveness is not just expressing feelings, laying down the law to someone, and then walking away. In general, to solve problems you must do more than talk back or express feelings; you must be very clear about what you want to accomplish by asserting yourself. You must attend to your feelings, decide what you want, and then use some specific verbal skills to negotiate for the changes you want.

 Assertive problem-solving involves the ability to plan, “sell,” and implement an agreeable contract between yourself and the other person without sounding like a nag, a dictator, or a preacher.

In other words, an assertive person can express feelings in a manner that is both personally satisfying and socially effective.

Sharon and Gordon Bower, Asserting Yourself

the smooth handle

One of (Thomas) Jefferson’s rules was this, and I think it is priceless, "Always take hold of things by the smooth handle." That is, go at a job or at your difficulty by the use of a method that will encounter the least resistance. Resistance causes friction in mechanics, therefore it is necessary in mechanics to overcome or reduce friction.

The negative attitude is a friction approach. That is why negativism develops such great resistance. The positive approach is the "smooth handle" technique. It is in harmony with the flow of the universe. It not only encounters less resistance, but actually stimulates assistance forces. It is remarkable how from early life until the end of your earthly existence the application of this philosophy will enable you to attain successful results in areas where otherwise you would be defeated.

Norman Vincent Peale, The Power of Positive Thinking

How to deal with conflict

The DESC technique was developed by Sharon Anthony Bower, author of Asserting Yourself as a method for solving interpersonal conflict. Here’s how it works:

Describe..

          Do:

  1. Describe the other person's behavior objectively
  2. Use concrete terms
  3. Describe a specific time, place, action
  4. Describe the behavior not the “motive”

          Don't

  1. Let your emotional reaction drive the conversation
  2. Use abstract, vague terms
  3. Generalize for all time
  4. Guess motives or goals

Express..

          Do:

  1. Express your feelings
  2. Expressed them calmly
  3. State feelings in a positive manner as relating to a goal to be achieved
  4. Direct yourself to the specific offending behavior, not to the whole person

          Don’t:

  1. Deny your feelings
  2. Unleash emotional outbursts
  3. State feelings negatively, making them put-down our attack
  4. Attack the entire character the person

Specify...

          Do:

  1. Ask explicitly for change in your downer’s behavior
  2. Request a small change
  3. Request only one or two changes at one time
  4. Specify the concrete actions you want to see stopped, and those you want to see performed
  5. Take account of whether your downer can meet your request without suffering large losses

          Specify:

             (if appropriate--what behavior you are willing to change to make the agreement)

          Don’t:

  1. Merely imply that you’d like a change
  2. Ask for two large a change
  3. Ask for too many changes
  4. Ask for changes in nebulous traits or qualities
  5. Ignore your downers needs or ask only for your satisfaction
  6. Consider that only your downer has to change

Consequences...

          Do:

  1. Make the consequences explicit
  2. Give a positive reward for change in the desired direction
  3. Select something that is desirable and reinforcing to your downer
  4. Select a reward that is big enough to maintain the behavior change
  5. Select a punishment of a magnitude that “fits the crime” of refusing to change behavior
  6. Select punishment that you are actually willing to carry out

          Don’t:

  1. Be ashamed to talk about rewards and penalties
  2. Give only punishments for lack of change
  3. Select something that only you might find rewarding
  4. Offer a reward you can't or won't deliver
  5. Make exaggerated threats
  6. Use unrealistic threats or self-defeating punishment

Problems are Signals

Americans in general have always admired growth. We admire the fastest growing companies and the cities that grew the most in the past decade. Magazines list the national economics that are growing the fastest. Bigger is better and bigger-faster is better still.

There is another kind of growth, which is much harder to measure. Its goal is not an increase in size (or intelligence or sophistication or experience or skill), but simply ripening. We overcome the barrier to growth as development when we are able to view our problems as signals that it is time to let go of the way in which we have been seeing and doing things and initiate a developmental transition.

The barriers to this kind of growth are overcome whenever we stop viewing our flaws and problems as things to be solved or removed and start viewing them as signals. What the problems are, really, are old solutions that have outlived their usefulness. From that point of view, whenever we do away with a problem instead of listening to its message, we trigger a string of events that lands us in trouble.

William Bridges, The Way of Transitions

Staying Power

Faith supplies staying power. It contains dynamic to keep one going when the going is hard. Anybody can keep going when the going is good, but some extra ingredient is needed to enable you to keep fighting when it seems that everything is against you.

You may counter, "But you don’t know my circumstances. I am in a different situation than anybody else and I am as far down as a human being can get.

In that case you are fortunate, for if you are as far down as you can get there is no further down you can go. There is only one direction you can take from this position, and that is up. So your situation is quite encouraging. However, I caution you not to take the attitude that you are in a situation in which nobody has ever been before. There is no such situation.

Practically speaking, there are only a few human stories and they have all been enacted previously. This is a fact that you must never forget – there are people who have overcome every conceivable difficult situation, even the one in which you now find yourself and which to you seems utterly hopeless. So did it seem to some others, but they found an out, a way up, a path over, a pass through.

Norman Vincent Peale,  The Power of Positive Thinking

Obstacles

The first thing to do about an obstacle is simply to stand up to it and not complain about it or whine under it but forthrightly attack it. Don't go crawling through life on your hands and knees half-defeated. Stand up to your obstacles and do something about them. You will find that they haven't half the strength you think they have.

Norman Vincent Peale, The Power of Positive Thinking

The in-between times

Unexpected solutions to difficult problems and creative ideas in general come out of a murky state where purpose and focus are temporarily suspended. Many of the decisions that change the direction of our lives are made during in-between times, after something has ended but before our lives have taken a definite new shape.

William Bridges, The Way of Transition

When Things Go Wrong

People need to recognize that life can be unfair, that accidents will happen. None of this is to say that people have to acquiesce to the threats of life, to lie down and not attempt to change anything. There is nothing wrong with positive thinking and the hope that today will go well or that people might repent and treat others better. But (you) should not be shocked and angered when something does go wrong… cultivate the attitude that life is something to work at and that problems are normal. Learning to laugh at normal failures and irritations has been shown to be effective in defusing anger.

Mark Cosgrove, Counseling for Anger

When Things Go Wrong

People need to recognize that life can be unfair, that accidents will happen. None of this is to say that people have to acquiesce to the threats of life, to lie down and not attempt to change anything. There is nothing wrong with positive thinking and the hope that today will go well or that people might repent and treat others better. But (you) should not be shocked and angered when something does go wrong… cultivate the attitude that life is something to work at and that problems are normal. Learning to laugh at normal failures and irritations has been shown to be effective in defusing anger.

Mark Cosgrove, Counseling for Anger

The Vacuum Cleaner Method

I know a man who is a tremendous asset to his organization, not because of any extraordinary ability, but because he invariably demonstrates a triumphant thought pattern. Perhaps his associates view a proposition pessimistically, so he employs what he calls the “vacuum cleaner method.” That is, by a series of questions he “sucks the dust” out of his associates’ minds; he draws out their negative attitudes. Then quietly he suggests positive ideas concerning the proposition until a new set of attitudes gives them a new concept of the facts.

They often comment upon how different facts appear when this man “goes to work on them.” It’s the confidence attitude that makes the difference. This doesn’t rule out objectively appraising of facts. The inferiority complex victim sees all facts through discolored attitudes. The secret of correction is simply to gain a normal view, and that is always slanted on the positive side.

Norman Vincent Peale, The Power of Positive Thinking