cheesemonkey wonders

cheesemonkey wonders

Monday, June 30, 2014

Models of exploratory talk from my youth — the NeXT years

In planning the group work morning session, I keep asking myself what I want group work to look like — and more importantly, to feel like — for my students. So far, the best description I have found in the literature comes from Douglas Barnes, by way of Neil Mercer (of Cambridge University) and Malcolm Swan and the Thinking Together project in the UK.

So far, Barnes’ conception of exploratory talk, as fleshed out by Mercer and Swan in their research, has come closer than anything else to what I first experienced in the most creative and effective engineering cultures in my adult life.

Lately I have come to the realization that what I really want to prepare my students for is the kind of passionate, creative, and incredibly effective exploratory talk culture that first electrified me during the three years I worked for Steve Jobs at NeXT.

Steve was a master of exploratory talk skills, though he was definitely stronger on the concept development side of things than he was on the social and emotional skills. But more than anybody else I have ever known, Steve valued exploratory talk. In many ways large and small, he worshipped it. And so did we. That was a big part of how I — and many others of us — justified putting up with the craziness we endured while working for him during that period. In search of the “insanely great,” Steve was open to crossing over into the extreme. You had to really want to be there.

Steve’s primary mode of exploratory talk was what could best be described as “gladiatorial.” You had to be willing to die in the arena — and die over, and over, and over again over weeks or months or even years. If you knew what you were talking about — and were prepared to defend your ideas to the death — then you were equipped to step into the arena. However, you also had to be prepared to get bloodied. The emotional toll was tremendous, and many of the most brilliant thinkers I knew at NeXT were simply not willing or able to go into the ring. They stayed as long as they could and made amazing contributions to the experience while still preserving their souls and their sanity. As I grew up, I began to understand that the price of Steve’s mode of exploratory talk was exclusion. Like him, most of the people who were willing to engage in that exchange were white men. I was unusual in that regard because I was not. Most of the leaders of Apple are still primarily white men.

One of the most powerful things about Steve’s engagement in exploratory talk was they when you were right about something, he would eventually come back and give credit (or take credit himself while in proximity to you). As many others have said, he did not do this with a tremendous amount of grace. He could be awkward and blunt and cruel and manipulative. But he could also be deeply and sincerely celebratory of your best work, and a big part of his genius was in being able to bring together some of the brightest, most intensely creative people in the business — the ones with the best ideas and the most flexible skills and the ability to get shit done. And he was a genius at launching us all into combat.

When I joined NeXT, I knew that I was going there to connect with the people I would be starting other companies with and working with for the rest of my life. That belief proved to be true. To this day, the ex-NeXT network remains my most active and cherished alumni group. I started other software companies with exNeXTers, and I worked with some of those who later took over Apple. We shared (and continue to share) a common framework — a common way of engaging in exploratory talk that is recognizable by us all. It’s a sixth sense about a kind of passionate and engaged exploratory talk in which the participants are fully present, and totally bringing their ‘A game’ to the conversation.

In the years after leaving NeXT, most of us refined our processes of exploratory talk in ways that made the process gentler and more generous, more nurturing. Steve’s way was just too damaging. It also left too many brilliant minds and voices out of too many conversations — conversations that would have benefited from the contributions of people who were less combat-averse than the rest of us.

For my own part, I found that mindfulness, restorative practices and good therapy really helped.

But none of us were ever willing to give up the electric quality of those product development conversations. They were incandescent. They left you hungry for more. After the meetings ended, we would all crawl back to our offices, drained and exhausted. But under the surface, we were all making notes, sketching ideas, and plotting our next pitches.

Hours or days later, somebody would pull you into their office to show you something they’d hacked together on their own time, working through some unresolved part of the central idea. That was how you prepared for combat in the arena — you tested your ideas against the best minds you knew. You forged alliances.

Some parts of this process were hilarious. My friend Henry hacked together a UI (user interface) component out of the AppKit to demonstrate some point he’d been trying to convey. In the last piece of his model, there was a pulldown menu of possible actions this one modal dialog allowed you to select. The last of the possible action options in the menu was often, “Drive an 18-inch spike through my brain.” The standard buttons at the bottom right of the dialog window were ‘Cancel’ and “OK.”

For me, this is the ideal of the kind of exploratory talk conversation I want my students to taste in my classroom. I want them to experience that process of brainstorming that takes you out of your own skin — and even out of your own mind — into a kind of magical space that Neil Mercer has termed “interthinking.” It’s that experience of being part of a Bigger Mind than your own individual, cognitive awareness. Brainstorming your way into truly great ideas takes a lot more commitment to flow and to “allowing” than most cognitive psychologists and theorists are comfortable talking about.

But that’s where all the payoff is.

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