For the Love of Grey (not black and white)

An argument against two-sided arguments

by Andrea Kates, Futureproofing Next and Grey Swan Guild

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I couldn’t bear to watch it to the bitter end. The event that was supposed to be a civilized discourse about the future of the US federal government—the televised debate—instead had me feeling that our country was heading toward terminal polarization. Issues that were so important — a global pandemic, economic struggles, social inequity, geopolitical volatility, environmental emergencies — were artificially reduced to two sides.

Republican red versus Democrat blue.

The Presidential debate had been a nightmare in form and substance — easy to chalk up that disaster partly to the debate format itself.

But, the Vice Presidential debate that came afterward — much more substantive than the Presidential debate— clinched my conviction that 2-sided debates have outlived their value as a mechanism to allow citizens to judge complex issues.

When we’re starved for leadership, 2-sided debates actually get in the way of our essential need — the ability to understand issues more deeply and pick the person who will move us forward most effectively.

Who won the US pre-election debates? No one.

That’s because traditional 2-sided debates don’t help us chart a viable path forward for a country to come together.

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The United States was at a crossroads, but the format for deliberation that forced opinions into black or white — pre-election debates — fell seriously short.

As 2020 comes to an end, I vote to end 2-sided debates in favor of deliberation and expression of vision. That’s the most effective way to inspire commitment to a leadership direction.

I advocate for the grey debate.

What Traditional Debates are Good For (and Not)

I have a history of taking sides, so it’s not as if I’m forever opposed to positioning issues as black and white. For years, I worked with Nick Smith as a contributor to his column called For and Against in the UK-published E&T Journal. As a business strategist with a reputation for bold thinking, I was frequently called on to defend the usually unpopular side of an argument, tapping into my expertise in business innovation to line the facts up in favor of my assigned point of view.

Once I was even given the task to argue AGAINST Sir Ernest Shackleton’s leadership style which I’m not sure increased my popularity with the UK readership.

To prepare for my side of the argument, I studied Shackleton’s expeditions to Antarctica from his fund-raising to his recruiting (5,000 people applied for 56 positions), to the abandon ship order to the rescue mission. Since I was charged with being “against” Shackleton’s leadership style, I shoe-horned the facts to suit my assigned conclusion. I learned a lot and tried to extract and share lessons based on how Shackleton made decisions and maintained the morale of his team in the face of adversity.

Unfortunately, the thumbs up/thumbs down sorting left a lot on the table. There was no context for how and why a leader might model herself after Shackleton, despite shortcomings, which is the true value of applying history to today’s decisions…why frame strategic alternatives as heads or tails?

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Debates are good for forcing facts into an argument that has a For and an Against. Truth is, most issues should not be reduced to two sides.

The downsides of a 2-sided debate format have convinced me that it’s time to swap out that approach in favor of a richer format to probe critical issues. Deliberation, development of a joint vision, and commitment to bold collective action should be the point of engagement today.

  1. Traditional debates aren’t designed to and don’t bring people together toward a common goal.
  2. 2-sided debates reinforce the polarization of extremes.
  3. Traditional debates don’t serve nuance well.
  4. 2-sided debates are not designed to piece together emerging facts into future scenarios.

In Favor of the Grey Debate: Grey Swan Guild is Founded on the Zone between the For and the Against

In November 2020 we held a non-traditional debate on behalf of the Grey Swan Guild, a loosely organized collaborative of global innovators and business strategists who came together to make sense of the COVID-changed world. Based on original research that exposed top concerns, a group of us faced off to frame perspectives on three aspects of our lives.

I was lucky to be captain of the Magenta team that went against the Gold group led by Greg Satell, a provocative thinker and pragmatic business leader. It was a refreshing format where we focused on inspiring people to learn more about the issues and project how they might make decisions on each topic in the future.

The Grey Swan Guild event was defined as a debate, but the measure of success was not judged by which side you ended up on at the end, but how much the discussion led you to open your mind to an expanded view of the issues.

There were three rounds with discussions between Team Gold and Team Magenta.

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ROUND #1: Shopping, Commerce & Retail: What’s changed and what’s to come post-COVID. Jeannette Hanna of Trajectory & Ikonicast and Sylvia Gallusser of Silicon Humanism each presented data on how the pandemic has on the one hand encouraged us to appreciate our local vendors or on the other hand, rely on big brands to provide our essentials.

Highlights: What is a “15-minute city”? How might Mercado Libre, Shopify, Amazon, and Alibaba continue to redefine commerce when we’re able to shop in person more freely?

On the surface, the conversation almost seemed designed to pit one side against the other like a traditional debate. In reality, the format encouraged people to appreciate the complexities of the issues and live in the grey.

Rather than presenting one side of the argument as the winner (as is the case in traditional debates), the Grey Swan Debate granted points to the team that did the better job of moving people from their original stance toward a more expanded view of the issue.

ROUND #2: Is the post-COVID world heading more toward the cool use of data (individual empowerment) or the creepy (surveillance societies)? We heard from Jonathan Hoffberg from Provarity and Rob Tyrie from Ironstone Advisory. We came away with a richer understanding of the double-edged sword of privacy versus protection and had new contexts to frame our decisions moving forward.

ROUND #3: Which will prevail post-COVID: live events and entertainment or virtual/digital? Jeff Grimshaw brought examples of how in-person events drive our primal needs for connection and Ralph Guggenheim applied his experience (formerly with Lucasfilm and Pixar) to help us project to a future state where there will be more Travis Scott / Fortnite experiences in our futures — 12 million+ people experiencing a hybrid form of entertainment.

Who won? Everyone.

Because the point was to expand our perspectives and to apply the insights from emerging data and behavior to leadership choices we will face in the coming months. The grey nature of the debate reinforced the standard, and the community members in attendance were moved, opened up their thinking to new possibilities, and they were better-equipped to apply what they learned to the future.

Research on Pre-Election Debates Points to Either Zero Moving of the Needle, Little Impact or Increased Polarization

It could be argued that traditional televised 2-sided debates are valuable mechanisms to change voter preference. The counter-argument is actually stronger. In 2019–2020 Caroline Le Pennec-Çaldichoury and Vincent Pons published research from 56 tv debates, 31 elections representing 7 countries that found little impact of televised debates on election outcomes.

They concluded: “We do not find any significant impact of TV debates on individual consistency between vote intention and vote choice — or between policy preferences, issue salience, or beliefs on candidates expressed before and after an election.”

Even worse, a two-sided debate format could be responsible for increased polarization of opinion. Jay Van Bavel and Andrea Pereira recently published a report that suggests debates actually reinforce polarization.

“When partisans tune into a debate, they often walk away with an opinion that just confirms what they believed before the debate began,” Van Bavel says.

Why debate if it doesn’t illuminate issues or open people’s minds?

How a Grey Debate Helps Companies Futureproof

In my day job, I help companies futureproof. It’s a disciplined approach to corporate growth with a fresh point of departure. We start with the future business we want to construct and set a roadmap to get there.

The key to success in company after company that futureproofs well is to see beyond a black and white reading of the data. It’s the squinting at new facts that drives the magic.

How might the intersection of what we see + what we’ve done come together to move our organization in new directions?

Rather than look at facts as they currently are, we reconfigure our reading of technology advances, emerging customer preferences, cross-industry insights, and business model innovations to equip leaders for action. We work with leaders in fintech, software, mobility, technology, retail, travel, energy, and hybrids in-between. The goal is to apply the data to uncover new paths to market, develop products and platforms that serve people better, and make bold growth moves.

To futureproof successfully, leaders have to escape a black/white or winner/loser view of what’s possible. The future “must do’s” need to outweigh the current “can’t do’s”.

In business, if we squeeze an issue into a two-sided decision we never get teams to envision the future of their industry or embrace innovative business models. If we reduce options to the binary either-or argument, we’re left with winners and losers when what’s required is a unified commitment to a new direction.

Grey Debates Rule When We Need to Make Bold Moves, Despite Ambiguity or Uncertainty (which is almost always the case)

  1. Grey debates frame issues and decisions as multi-sided and provide a number of alternative paths forward.
  2. Grey debates avoid partisan pre-bias. Our minds can open up to a new possibility.
  3. Grey debates equip us to take bold action and be prepared to pivot (as opposed to digging in our heels to defend one side of an artificially-constructed argument).
  4. Grey debates encourage collaboration among people with diverse opinions.

A Personal Coda: Visiting the Freedom Museum (Frihedsmuseet)

Last week, I was lucky to visit a museum in Copenhagen called the Freedom Museum, dedicated to the telling of the story of Denmark during World War II. The curation reflected the embodiment of the Grey Debate mindset. Fair-minded displays allowed the visitors to come to our own conclusions about War, Resistance, and Freedom and the military, social, ethical actions associated with all of them.

Instead of agitprop, what I experienced was a balanced presentation of facts, allowing me to form my own opinions. At the end of the experience, I had empathy for multiple sides of the decisions, respect for the people who made them, and a new perspective on how I might act under similar circumstances.

When I exited the exhibit, I stopped in front of the banner on the kiosk outside the building and appreciated the simplicity and importance of the museum’s core message, which for me is also a great slogan in defense of the grey:

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Freedom isn’t always black and white. I don’t think many things are.

In this post-pandemic world, where traditional thinking is no longer sufficient, let’s put 2-sided debates to bed and embrace the grey.

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Interested in helping make sense of these challenges? Come join the Grey Swan Guild where we are doing just that — managing the unmanageable and the unimaginable.

We started our Guild by inviting business leaders, strategists, and connectors to sort out the issues and contemplate the impact. Now in this next phase, we are expanding to include events where we learn together, create together, and make sense together. Hopefully you’ll consider joining our Grey Swan Guild that includes over 500 members including diverse thinkers, corporate leaders, sensemakers, foresighters, futurists from over 50 different countries. Learn what we do and participate actively https://www.greyswanguild.org/get-involved

Article by Andrea Kates

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Hello, my name is Andrea Kates, I’m managing director of Futureproofing NEXT where we work with corporate teams to drive bigger, bolder, simpler futures. It’s a research-based approach I developed with Sean Moffitt based on insights from 30,000 teams and 200 corporate + scale-up client projects.

Before I worked with Futureproofing NEXT, I was CEO of a San Francisco based SaaS software company co-founded by the originator of lean startup. We ran a platform to guide corporate teams from technology and invention through to delivery at scale. Some of the companies I’ve worked with on an ongoing basis: Fujitsu, Ford (China and US), SuMi Trust (Japan), Hyatt, Audi, Intel, HP, KK Wind (Denmark), Intergráficas (Colombia), and Stitch Fix.

I’m also a keynote speaker on The Future Of…and I get 10/10 ratings because I marry emerging research with practical insight into 52 business models. I’m author of the book on corporate innovation called #FindYourNext, which pioneered the concept of cross-industry innovation (case studies from P.F. Chang’s, Zappos, Allstate, GM, GE, Indiegogo). I’m working on book #2: Futureproofing NEXT —The Future Beyond Innovation and the virtual delivery sprint format we call Futureproofing U.

I live in San Francisco and I am a global project lead and advisor to corporate transformation leaders. I also sit on the core team/advisory board of Copenhagen Fintech, OpenFinance (Mexico) and Business Institute (Denmark) and have been thought leader in residence at Cisco, and Open Innovation Gateway powered by FUJITSU. I also co-founded Grey Swan Guild, a global community of strategists and sensemakers.

Please connect with me on Linkedin here & on Twitter @andrea_kates

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