Open Dialogue Is Everything

I was invited to give the closing keynote address at the 2017 Thesis Festival for the School of Visual Arts MFA program in Interaction Design. This year’s theme was Wonderful Behaviors. It was both an honor to speak and an opportunity to reflect.

Thank you for having me here today. After spending an incredible and insightful semester with all of you, and seeing the culmination of your thesis work, presented on stage here today, I am both humbled and honored to be giving today’s closing keynote.

I teach a course titled Leadership, Ethics, and Professional Practice in the final semester of the MFA program for Interaction Design. The course is meant to talk about many of the unspoken challenges of working, creating, managing, leading, resolving — it’s the stuff that generally doesn’t get covered outside of a class like this. We cover topics like: How do your unconscious biases shape your worldview, for better or for worse? You’ve built a rockstar team, now how do you keep them? When pressed for time and money, how do you get creative with what you have? Why is Munawar obsessed with Abraham Lincoln?

Honest discourse in the classroom and honest discourse in the workplace are central to our ability to be the very best version of ourselves. It’s a core belief that shapes how I’ve conducted myself over the years, even before I was cognizant of it, and it is a core tenet of this program.

In the early days of my career, I made products that would make people’s lives easier and make companies money. A few years in, I was able to be a bit more choosy in the roles that I took on. It was also right around the time that the word “experience” arrived on the scene. Previously, the work we did was never really described in terms of “experience” and how to make that intangible, not-so-easy-to-measure awesomeness we are always striving for.

These days, most of the work I do is around organizational design. I help companies—a mix of for-profits and non-profits—bring design thinking to their practices. I help them build better teams, think more broadly and deeply about problems, reduce the noise and cognitive load that surrounds their people and processes, change habits and behaviors. In simple terms, I cut through the bullshit, and show product teams how to do the best work of their lives.

I am no stranger to conflict. Some might even say that I invite it, openly. Part of cutting through the bullshit of our working lives and our private lives is to simply call things out. It’s not easy to do, but with some practice, you find that all that bottled up festering nonsense — the stuff that holds back individuals, teams, and ultimately the work — is something we can actually call out, talk out, and get on with the thing we’re here to do. Open, healthy discourse has got to be at the heart of everything we do.

I am here today to give a public, congratulatory address. It’s not a forum for religion or politics, and most certainly not intended to serve as a soapbox. But I’m going to go ahead and break some rules today, to illustrate a point. And mostly because I believe elephants in the room deserve center stage. Any political statements I make are not intended to offend or disrespect or alienate; rather, I hope to express how very much I just want to talk about perspective and what it means in the context of designing for the public at large.

For anyone in this room who has ever had to design something before, you understand the importance of understanding your audience. And you understand the importance of this in a deeper way when you screw up with your audience. Yes, we use a priori knowledge, ethnographic research, questionnaires en masse, one-on-one interviews, post-use surveys, hidden cameras, analytics, anecdotes. We try to understand the best case scenarios and the worst case scenarios, and every nuanced bit in between. We learn to make the shift from persona to person. At the end of the day, we know that understanding perspective is everything.

In the work that we do, in the making of things — for the hundreds, or the thousands, or the millions — there is a balance we strike between input and intuition. We set out to make the very best of [fill in the blank]. And sometimes, despite our very best efforts, and our inputs, and our intuition, somehow the very best of this thing does not come to be. It doesn’t catch on, it doesn’t pay off. And at that specific moment in time, you have to decide for yourself, should I unpack what just happened here? Or is it easier for me to just walk away.

Earlier this year, I walked away from something very big. Something I haven’t fully unpacked yet. In fact, I think this may have happened to a lot of us.

On the evening of Friday, January 20, I wrote a post on Facebook. I generally write how I speak. Raw, unfiltered, no holds barred. And because of the state I was in — still reeling from the shock of what had just happened — this particular post was more colorful than usual. For better or for worse, it was written from the gut. And sure enough, it was also received as a punch in the gut by the 0.01% of my friendbase on Facebook that took major offense to this post.

I say “friendbase”, but really these were all members of my husband’s family. Matthew is third-generation American of German descent, born and raised on a small farm in LeMars, Iowa. I was welcomed into their family 14 years ago, when Matthew brought me home for Christmas (my very first all-American Christmas experience!). We’ve had 14 beautiful, warm, memorable years together with his family, and with our two children, season after season. I fell in love early on with Matthew’s mother. In fact, aside from Matthew, she’s the only one I wanted in the room with me when I gave birth to my two children, Owen and Alastair. We became incredibly close over the years.

Shortly after inauguration, Matthew’s family confronted me on my very vocal posts. I, in turn, confronted his family on their beliefs, on how these beliefs translated into a vote, how I felt about that vote, and what that vote meant for the country, and the world at large. And “confronted” is probably a nice way of putting it. Given the careful, measured approach I take in my professional life and my artful ability in handling conflict, this was anything but that. I watched myself go into attack formation, doing and saying all of the things I know not to do, obliterating any chance of healthy debate and productive discussion. These were people I had grown incredibly close to over 14 years.

And yet, here we were.

This past January, many of us found ourselves in a heightened state of emotion and disbelief. And in that first month, many of us took to Facebook and Twitter to express our complete and utter dismay for what had just happened to our political system and the bearing it would have on political systems around the world. Some of us broke up with friends and family. Some of us took to the streets to march and find solidarity among strangers. We joined mailing lists. We checked facts. We made phone calls. We gave money. We defended sanctuary cities. We wrote letters. We were looking for every means possible to do something, anything—just short of giving up our day jobs.

I recently had a chance to speak with Jason Putorti about his work in civic engagement over the last several years. He’s been at the forefront of tackling how to engage and activate regular people, like you and me. Jason co-founded something called Votizen back in 2010. It all started with the success of a Twitter campaign supporting the Startup Visa, where thousands of people tweeted their support of the bill and Votizen delivered the messages to the appropriate people, to help turn out the vote. Over time, Votizen was meant to be a way to knock on doors and talk to people about issues that might sway their way of thinking about things, but by using the power of targeted social and not actual boots on the ground. When only about half of the population is registered to vote, knowing who to talk to and how to talk to them is incredibly important. And Votizen proved out that being able to have individual conversations with people had the power to tilt election results.

In mid-March of this year, I stumbled across a post for something called Resistbot. I had put together a clunky workflow for getting in front of my Congresspeople that was sorta working, but mostly not, and was not in the least bit efficient for something I wanted to do daily. So I was really excited to dig in a bit on what Eric Ries and Jason Putorti had come up with. In Eric’s words:

“Resistbot was born out of my personal frustrations with trying to contact my members of Congress. I know it’s important to do it every day, and there are dozens of blog posts and websites that tell you only a certain way “counts” — calls, emails, faxes, town halls, etc.

My reps’ phone lines are always jammed, and there’s only someone there during the day. So most days, I don’t actually get around to connecting to a person, let alone all three for my two Senators and one House Rep. So I started trying to email each day.

But Congress has accomplished the amazing feat of making it hard to email them. It’s actually easier (!) to fax. So I started faxing every day. And I wanted to make sure my faxes were getting through, so I started learning about how Congressional offices handle messages. It turns out that most of them use software to help them categorize the inbound messages they get, sort them into issue buckets, and tally up the for/against numbers. Faxes and emails get automatically scanned and dumped into that flow — as long as they are not form letters and are verifiably from a constituent.

So I designed Resistbot, along with a team solely built of volunteers, like you and me, to solve this problem. It makes it insanely easy to generate a fax to each of my representatives every day. It doesn’t tell me what to say, but makes my short text into a nice-looking letter. Now, I have my voice heard daily.”

As I was digging into their story a bit more, Jason Putorti and I talked about the magic that happens when you make things easy for people and let them do things on their terms (in this case, text your rant to your BFF and your senator, all in one go). And then we started to talk through what it takes help people see other perspectives. This problem is yet to be solved, and it is a question that a lot of us have dedicated ourselves to answering: how do you have the conversations that need to be had, and work through perspectives, and help change behavior. Resistbot was awesome and has finally given me the most frictionless path to getting in front of my Congressperson. But Chuck Schumer, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Carolyn Maloney don’t necessarily need to hear from me. My state and district are doing just fine, they’re already fighting my fight. I now wanted to tackle the bigger, more looming question on how to break through to the other side.

Back in January, I was not the best version of myself. I had behaved in a shameful way. And it still weighs heavily on me. In a moment where the best version of myself was most needed, I instead did what was easy and what came to me in the heat of the moment. I had a point to make. I had facts to cite. I was aggressive. I was ugly.

I have not yet repaired any of these relationships. But I have spent a considerable amount of time trying to understand the framework which brought about this kind of behavior in the first place. “Moral framing”, as it turns out, is the tidy little phrase that I should have understood and internalized, before lobbing these arguments. In a nutshell, people tend to present their arguments in a way that appeals to the ethical code of their own side, without any real understanding of the other side. Liberals value a, b, c. Conservatives value x, y, z. When we’re trying to make an argument to win the hearts and minds of the other side, we have to morally reframe our argument.

The Oatmeal, authored by Matthew Inman, is one of my go-to sources for truth and corroboration. I love Harper’s, I love NPR, I love the New York Times. And I really love my weekly dose of The Oatmeal. I’ve had “reframe” on the brain, almost obsessively so, and apparently so has Matthew Inman. His timing was impeccable. He wrote up a fairly concise, well-researched, beautifully illustrated piece last week titled Believe. And it breaks things down in terms that even my kindergartner can understand.

Reframe, reframe, reframe.

But it’s not easy and it is a mental stretch. You have to rewire your brain a bit to think on the spot in this way. And it’s not to say that this type of reframing would have an immediate and profound effect on the person I’m speaking to. It would be naive to think so. But it does, without a doubt, allow me to get off on a better foot with this person, start engaging with an earnest intent to engage, and ultimately lead to a productive conversation. No one’s the good guy or the bad guy in this. And it’s not about one person winning the argument over the other. It’s about having the healthiest, most productive conversation we can possibly have, given the very different frameworks we might be coming from. It’s about challenging people’s beliefs and assumptions, about design or politics or whatever, in a persistent and respectful way, to get to some underlying truth.

So what’s been hard about all of this, on a more personal level, is knowing that I am a designer, a problem solver, a truth seeker, a peacemaker. Building things people want to use and delivering on the promise of a great experience is what I do. It’s what all of us do. It’s what we’ve dedicated our careers to, and why we are sitting here today. For all of you who are graduating from this program, two years ago, you made the choice to be here. And you made the choice to immerse yourself in your courses, to engage with faculty you shared an interest with, and to help each other uncover the things you were meant to uncover in your time here.

And in that time, there’s a tremendous amount of making that’s happened. Of wiring and rewiring in your brains. All good stuff. But in that time, you may have also found yourself in dark places, unable to find the right words, or break through creatively, or wonder where the time went when we were looking down instead of looking up. But I think the darkest places we find ourselves in, professionally or personally, is when we are unable to understand the perspective of where someone else is coming from. It’s a bit ironic, given that we pride ourselves in our innate ability for empathy and for being able to put ourselves in the shoes of others, in order to inspire them with something better, and help solve their problem. It’s what we do, after all, it’s what we’ve dedicated our lives to.

My greatest struggles over the years, professionally or personally or politically, can easily be traced back to not being able to have a conversation. And not just a check-the-box conversation. It takes courage to go initiate a meaningful conversation with your teammate, a boss, a family member, a person who has influence over political outcomes. Knowing how to have these conversations, and knowing the importance of having them early and often, can mean the difference between the outcome that you wanted versus an outcome that you now have to figure out how to shoulder through.

This has been a year of heightened emotion, of fear, disbelief, and uncertainty. There are mornings I lay in bed, immobilized, angry, tearful, unable to move out from under the weight of it all. And I lay there thinking, I’m not quite sure what I can do more of, or better yet, what I can do differently.

I have to remind myself, I am surrounded by makers — by writers, by artists, by designers, by engineers — the people I surround myself with, look to, and look up to, every single day. And when I’ve seen us make even the smallest shifts in the way we think about things, how we solve a problem, our perspective, our behaviors, our ability to reframe, that is when — and only when — the wonderful and the unexpected happens.

As a class, you’ve shown your wonders and your talents over these two years — in your courses, in your thesis, in the way you’ve each grown as individuals. You’ve uncovered some of the things you want to set out to solve, but as you already know, this is just the very beginning. There is so much yet for you to uncover. Keep your hearts and your minds open. Be that person who is always willing to start the conversation, whether it’s across party lines, across a conference room, or across the dinner table. The best work of your lives will happen when you keep the dialogue open.

Thank you.