A recent post on Fast Company’s design blog, (clearly my go-to) is about argument. It frames it in a way that vilifies brainstorming, which seems needless to me (I’ll discuss this later), because the gist is still valuable. Arguments enable diverse perspectives on a topic to be externalized. The challenge is keeping it productive and not degrading. The author, a Design Strategist at Continuum, provides a shortlist of guiding principles when doing this, such as keeping it fun (a design staple), and saying “No, because…” as opposed to simply saying “No.” These points, and the others listed are very valuable aspects to executing this idea of productive arguing well.

However, in the article the value of productive arguing is built on a comparison to brainstorming. I think this is both inappropriate and debilitating, because it is a bad comparison and doesn’t enable the tool to stand on its own. Brainstorming is a generative process, i.e. it is meant to produce a lot of ideas, good or bad, the point is not to care but create. This process isn’t meant to provide well-thought, thorough and refined ideas. This is important to remember, because this article claims that some people thought brainstorming was the key to innovation, as if this was all that was needed. This implied replacement of one tool with the other seems to say that they are comparing apples to apples, so to speak, with innovation as the fulcrum on which the tools are compared. This is not true.

Generally, arguing is a forum where people state counterpoints to each other. Normally this may involve personal attacks and a meandering focus, but the basic concept is the same. I think we’re all familiar with it. However productive arguments, ideally remove the negative aspects of a normal argument using guidelines like the ones described in the article. This process is much less suited to producing a cornucopia of ideas, and much more suited to refining specific ideas. Which makes sense, because arguing easily highlights the pros and cons of a topic. This builds out the space around the topic, showing exactly how it jives with the rest of the world, for better or worse. Thus, while brainstorm generates crazy ideas, arguing validates and positions them in the world, two different actions.

Why, then, is arguing so important? It is important, because it draws out team member’s inherent assumptions & biases so that they may be questioned. Arguing also forces perspectives to shift in consideration of others viewpoints. Each of these are imperative when working in a small group, because as a group, each member is absolved of having to consider every aspect of a topic or idea, and thus rely on other group members for help. However, though the roles within a group may be clearly defined in terms of outcomes and responsibilities, when considering a fresh idea, these lines become much less clear. In these situations, open and honest dialog is imperative in avoiding an Abilene paradox and to ensuring the team is on the same page when moving forward.

Team members are different people. They will inherently have different views, assumptions and biases. Multi-disciplinary teams exacerbate these differences to try to develop highly innovative ideas. The premise is that for a group to work well together they must be able to consider each others views with respect. This forces each member to shift their personal perspectives in consideration of others, and the more disparate the backgrounds, the greater the perspective shift. These shifts have the potential to produce interesting and new ideas, but only if the confusions and mis-understandings are addressed. If not, group members will rectify other’s views internally; answering any questions they may have with their own assumptions and simply forgetting about the parts that don’t make sense to them.

As humans we do this because of anxiety around the unknown and the ease of calling upon our assumptions of what is most amicable. Herein lies the problem. Decisions cannot be based on assumption; there is no proof in assumption. Assumptions differ with culture. A decision based on assumption is pure inductive logic. Therefore, new ideas and perspectives must be questioned, no matter how silly or inane one assumes their question is. Arguing is imperative to progress. Arguments enable consensus, providing insight into each others perspectives while creating an ever-increasingly robust evaluation of the given topic or idea.

The way the article presents the process at Continuum, this productive arguing is paired with a discussion portion. The nuances that this system provides isn’t thoroughly discussed, but I still have a hard time believing that it happens instead of brainstorming, as this article wants to imply.

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