Taking the Critic out of Critical Thinking



I just returned from UBTech in Las Vegas.  Does anyone else feel like they need to be boiled after 3 days in that town?  You forget what the 1970’s world was like when smoking was allowed basically anywhere and it’s beyond creepy to see the people dressed up (quite poorly) as Elmo, Spiderman, or barely dressed at all as a showgirl, hoping passersby will give them $5 to take a picture together.  Sigh.

But Sin City aside, the conference proved interesting.  As with all conferences, there were good sessions, bad sessions, and everything in between.  But I want to talk about a particularly clever session, spawning from a pretty clever technology solution, that definitely took me by surprise.  (It’s lovely to go into a session with low expectations only to be pleasantly surprised at the presenter and the solution!)

The session was performed by Dave MacLeod, CEO and Co-Founder of Thought Exchange.  If you read my stuff with any regularity, you know that I have presented keynotes, workshops, and conference seminars (literally) hundreds of times.  Add in that I have taught thousands of Communications students in 25 years and I often struggle with presenters.  But I have to start by saying Dave (who I had not met previously) was self-deprecating, funny, and poignant throughout.  Bravo sir. 

His “pitch” from my perspective was the best kind of presentation for an academic audience at a conference.  It was highly educational, crafted a powerful argument around a need, and then leveraged the solution by which to address the need.  So let me channel the session here just a bit.

Through a clever attention grabber (clever because it legitimately had applications to the rest of the session), Dave showed us that when it comes to change, there are 3 types of people.  Pulling from my own session on using teams in the classroom, we agree.  I argue there are evangelists who early adopt, but can tend to over-promise but under-deliver.  Dave added an interesting consideration – these folks will often move quickly from one cool, new thing to the next, so be careful.  Then, there are those who likely get the reason for the change or initiative but who don’t likely believe they have the time or the energy to expend on it.  As I’ve blogged about before, most people believe themselves to be overworked as it is.  Any change, no matter how much efficiency it drives is likely to cause more effort up front (if not throughout).  And finally, Dave fell on the C.A.V.E. people (my term, not his).  You know, Colleagues Against Virtually Everything?  People who will never try anything new, no matter what.  (And the old joke goes, “If you don’t know any CAVE people at your university, you might be the CAVE person yourself…)

These three paradigms create an interesting context and contrast regarding how change can occur within an organization.  (A hugely important, almost missed concept Mr. MacLeod made as the last sentence of his presentation was this: “People change all the time when it comes to things that matter to them.  They’ll change positions, jobs, houses, cars, or whatever matters for them, often at great cost.  We’re wired to move on.” – Jeff’s paraphrase)


So, Dave asserted that to really impact change in people, a requirement was likely listening coupled with empathy.  The crowd seemed to buy the premise as nobody likes changes to be imposed but instead want to believe they are collaborative or even co-created.  But how people accomplish change support is where the problem sets in.  While many may believe they are seeking listening opportunities to promote empathy, he argued that the methods and channels we currently use are weak.

1.       Polls & Surveys – the savvy practitioner took a quick / cheap / easy survey by asking us to raise our hands.  The findings, he pointed out, actually polarized some in the audience and at the end of the day didn’t necessarily help with finding a majority.  Added detractor – by forcing people to choose from your set of variables, you potentially hurt the argument as other variables could be out there and known to the audience.

2.       Town Halls – higher education loves an all-department, all-faculty, all-hands type meeting.  But what do we really gain from these?  The most extraverted speakers, often coupled with the tenured (safest) people get to make their points.  At the same time, we may get a lot of “first” ideas, but not many “best” ideas.  And again, trying to extrapolate any kind of consensus from these is fallacious as most do not get to talk, or choose not to.

So, how can an organization find a communication channel that genuinely promotes inclusion, a sense of fairness, and does so in a manageable way?  Enter ThoughtExchange.  (Know that I’ll do my best to describe it here as a true novice)

The tool was a text-based experience, which is powerful as everyone already knows the medium.  You send ideas or thoughts into a hub and some AI sits behind the scenes trying to cluster similar ideas or thoughts.  There is a requirement of short texts, with a Twitter-esque character limit.  Then, after promoting your ideas, you can very quickly begin evaluating others with a simple 1-5 score.  As that happens, the same AI does some nice visualizations to illustrate which ideas are considered the most valued by the crowd vs those that are not.  Our room of 40 or so were able to have an idea creation and rating session in 5-7 minutes.  I personally added 2 ideas and evaluated 20+ ideas in that time. 

I started by saying this was a clever idea.  So there is no surprise when I say this indeed did seem like a fair, crowdsourced method to help with conversations around an idea (whether change-based or not).  Mr. MacLeod said they often work with pollsters and politicians who are trying to hear a lot of ideas quickly and who want them rated by the group.  They are bringing that concept to higher education.  Again, if you read my stuff with regularity, you know how keen I am around associative thinkingThat is a major marker of innovation in my book! 

At the same time, he really drove home an important concept.  Even if people do not get their idea or suggestion into action, they will often go along with things if they believe the process to have been fair.  So very pragmatically, this means that if everyone’s ideas (including MY ideas) were legitimately on the table, the “top” option(s) may not be mine, but since it was fairly produced, I’ll go with it (etc). 

Do I think this tool works in all contexts and circumstances?  I don’t know.  My colleague and I who attended the session together wondered about asynchronous applications, as it seemed much stronger for live experiences.  But the folks at Thought Exchange probably have some thoughts around that.  Ironically, my own session was about how to use teams in the classroom far more effectively and one of the major principles we covered was just how bad an idea brainstorming can be.  While this tool doesn’t mitigate all the reasons brainstorming is a bad practice, it definitely is the first application I’ve seen to cover many of those concerns.  But for debates, criticisms of a current initiative, or just a genuine crowdsourced solution, this could work in a classroom, for a department meeting, at the faculty senate level, or beyond.  See, who says everything that happens in Vegas needs to stay in Vegas? 

Good luck and good learning.