Y’all, it’s curling season again, and I am just beside myself. After a 19-month pandemic hiatus, I’m curling in two leagues and having the best time. I love the same things I’ve always loved: the challenge of throwing rocks at just the right angle and speed; the immediate feedback when the rock comes to rest; team discussion of tactics and plan Bs for when things don’t go as planned, which is often.
But it feels so much more momentous to be curling this year. As an activity, it’s not without its covid risks — it is, after all, indoor exercise, and the virus seems to especially love the cold. But everyone in the building is double-vaxxed and with the new covid rules allowing just one sweeper, it’s not a sport of close contact. For me, the risk feels manageable and worth it, because curling is something I do for me, just because it brings me joy. There hasn’t been very much of that since March of 2020, and now it’s built into every week. I’m so appreciative of those few hours of pure fun, both for their own sake, and as a harbinger of normalcy.
Collaborating on Ambiguous Knowledge Work
Are you the sort of man who would put the poison into his own goblet or his enemy's? Now, a clever man would put the poison into his own goblet, because he would know that only a great fool would reach for what he was given. I am not a great fool, so I can clearly not choose the wine in front of you. But you must have known I was not a great fool, you would have counted on it, so I can clearly not choose the wine in front of me.
~Vizzini, demonstrating dizzying recursive self belief in The Princess Bride
Since the pandemic began, my experience with virtual collaboration has been decidedly mixed. It’s fine when the output can be precisely specified in advance — I try to deliberately over-communicate, and it seems to work out. The challenge comes with collaborating on something I’ll call Ambiguous Knowledge Work (AKW) — the messy job of synthesizing research, finding a creative solution to a problem, or designing a new program. The ambiguity in AKW is not what we’re making (it’s usually a PowerPoint deck, let’s be real), but in figuring out how to make abstract ideas relevant and resonant. At the outset, we can’t really describe what good looks like; there are many possible good outputs, but many bad ones too. Somehow, we need to get everyone working together to build the same thing, even when we don’t know what that thing is.
And sometimes, remote collaboration on AKW is great! We are using different tools, but the difference between remote and in-person is imperceptible. And then there are the Other Times, when AKW feels so much harder than doing the same tasks in-person. Specifically the collaboration is what break down. We are ostensibly working together, but it’s not multiple people contributing ideas and building on each others’ work. Instead, it devolves into one person driving, and everyone else relegated to ‘helping.’ It’s bad for everyone: the driver is over-burdened and holding too many things in their head, while the helpers are frustrated to not be contributing to the fullest of their capabilities.
This observation led me to the empirical work of psychologists Felix Warneken and Michael Tomasello1, where they identified the phenomenon of shared intentions as being a distinctly human ability. Shared intention “creates a shared space of common psychological ground that enables everything from collaborative activities with shared goals to human-style cooperative communication.” Warneken and Tomasello conducted experiments with toddlers and chimpanzees, to see how they would behave on cooperative tasks and games with adults. They found that toddlers are able to form shared, cooperative intentions — they don’t just help adults, but attempt to re-engage adults even when the adults stop pursuing the goals. By contrast, chimpanzees would help adults with a more limited set of goals (for instance, reaching an object), but didn’t display any ongoing joint commitment if the adult stopped engaging. The toddlers formed shared intentions, while the chimpanzees formed individualistic intentions.
Recursive Social Belief
What’s really interesting about shared intentionality is that it requires recursive social belief2. That is, not only do I need to believe that we have the same intention, I also need to believe that you believe that we both have the same intention. Knowing what our collaborators are paying attention to is critical to getting beyond helping on someone else’s goal and actually forming a shared intention.
In a typical real-life collaboration on AKW, we might stand around a whiteboard as a team. We can see everything written on the whiteboard, but we can also tell where our teammates are focusing their attention (and vice versa). If switch your gaze to the other side of the board, you are conveying valuable information about your own thought processes, and you also know that I am receiving that information. That recursive knowledge of other people’s focal points is doing really important work of keeping us aligned, and keeping our intention truly shared.
Most of the academic work on shared intentions is focused on how it develops in early childhood, which is fascinating but not so helpful for adults in a work context. What was applicable is a study of shared intentions among pairs of computer programmers collaborating on AKW3, undertaken by Josh Tenenberg, Wolff-Michael Roth, and David Socha. They found that in-person programmers are “continuously doing alignment.” Each programmer monitors his partner’s work, but also monitors his partner’s monitoring and thereby achieves recursive social belief. They also found that co-located programmers are nevertheless able to work in silence for stretches — the actions they take on the screen do the work of communication and turn-taking4.
By contrast, when pair programmers work remotely, they don’t work in silence, but rather narrate their actions. (“I’m going to copy this line over here…”). We can look at this narration as both a recognition of and compensation for the loss of recursive social belief. The problem with narration as a solution is that it’s unidirectional: the listeners know where the narrator is focusing attention, but the narrator is not receiving any information about the listeners’ attention. In fact, you could imagine the narrator getting a false sense of recursive social belief: they assume their teammates are focusing on the things they’re talking about, even when it’s not the case. That doesn’t require the listeners to be distracted or multi-tasking. They could simply be paying attention to different lines of code on the screen, and thereby forming a subtly different intention.
In the specific context of pair programming (even remotely), any lack of alignment is quickly identified and repaired, because all of the work is done synchronously on a shared screen. But for most remote collaborative AKW, we don’t sit side-by-side with a shared work product. Typically, we meet virtually to align, go our separate ways to do individual work, and then reconvene—only to discover that whoops! We weren’t as aligned as we thought. We didn’t maintain shared intentionality, and we’re back to someone driving an individual intention with teammates helping.
The Right Tools for Ambiguous Knowledge Work
One implication here is that doing AKW is a good reason choose in-person meetings over remote. You should continue to collaborate in-person until most of the ambiguity has been resolved, and you can go back to working remotely on well-specified tasks.5 But if AKW must be done remotely, then we should change the default tools we use. Based on the pair programming research, I’ve formulated some principles I’m planning to follow the next time I’m collaborating virtually on AKW:
Name the problem, discussing the necessity of recursive social belief, and the challenge of knowing where everyone’s attention is focused, so we all know what we’re grappling with.
Stop using video conferencing platforms for AKW. Video-based tools can’t create recursive social belief because you never know where other people are focusing their attention. The built-in screen-sharing functions are also unhelpful because they’re unidirectional, so you only get information about the presenter’s intention. Instead, use audio-only calls, and collaboration tools that let everyone edit simultaneously.
Use a collaboration tool with telepointers. The telepointers are especially important because they let you see the location of your collaborators’ cursors while you are all working in the same file. It’s an imperfect proxy for attention, but it’s a big improvement on having no indication at all.
Do more AKW synchronously in those collaboration tools. I’ve avoided this in the past because watching someone type is a poor spectator sport. I now think it was misguided to frame it as watching — it is turn-taking. Everyone contributes by typing their ideas in real-time, not unlike how everyone has a marker if we’re doing AKW in the same room. It’s a shift from using technology to talk about the work, to using technology to actually do the work.
Shorten the time between meetings, when we’re not working synchronously. I often default to checking in every two days or so, but that seems like an impossibly long time compared to the continuous alignment that pair programmers do. I’m excited by features like Slack’s huddle, which make it easier to do that continuous alignment work without formal scheduling.
Invest in screen real estate. One challenge I have with online collaboration tools is that it’s hard to get the resolution right. In real life, it’s easy to stand so that you can read the whiteboard and see where others are focusing their attention. Once you move digital, if you’re zoomed out enough to see where everyone’s telepointers are, you often can’t read the text. This is especially true on a laptop screen, so I’ll be purchasing a 27” HD monitor in Black Friday sales.
I’m really curious to see how my next remote AKW collaboration unfolds, with benefit of these principles. If you try some of them, or have ones to add, please share!
What I’m Working On
Last month I participated in a virtual panel discussion at RBC on the topic of “Leading with Authenticity.” One big theme of the panel was how much authenticity relies on knowing yourself and your values, so that you can bring them to bear no matter the situation. Meanwhile, I’ve begun diving deeper into self-determination theory (SDT) by reading Deci and Ryan’s 2017 review of the framework. (It’s really good, but it’s also 650 pages of academic writing. With luck, I will finish by Christmas.)
One of the questions I was asked on the panel was how organizations and leaders can support authenticity. I wasn’t far enough into this book to use its constructs and language in my answer, but I think I’d sharpen my response thusly: To support authenticity in the workplace, leaders need to help people integrate and internalize the organization’s demands into their own beliefs and sense of self. The more people can do that integration and internalization, the greater their feelings of authenticity and autonomy. And yes, that’s great for employee well-being, but SDT posits it also helps employees be more persistent, strive for higher quality, and achieve more effective results6. In other words, authenticity is good for business.
November is very much not my favourite month. In my mind, it is eternally grey and drizzly, without any redeeming features like snow or holidays. But yesterday we had a gloriously warm and sunny day, such that it was impossible to feel glum7. Even if the weather doesn’t cooperate where you are, I wish you all similar moments of rejuvenation and optimism over the month ahead.
Warneken and Tomasello have published widely on the topic, with a number of different co-authors. The three I read were: Altruistic Helping in Human Infants and Young Chimpanzees, Helping and Cooperation at 14 Months of Age, and Shared Intentionality.
This coinage is from Tenenberg, Roth, and Socha’s paper, “From I-Awareness to We-Awareness in CSCW”
In pair programming, each individual has their own keyboard and mouse, but they share a single screen, so they are both working on the same document. In the Tenenberg et al., study, they conducted ethnography at a software company where different duos would pair up for tasks for about two hours at a time.
This is called a perceptual gestalt — we are able to collaborate through actions alone, and the collaboration literally ‘goes without saying.’
This is one reason I disavow the work-X-days-a-week approach to hybrid work. Some teams may need to spend two consecutive weeks in office while they hash out a thorny problem, and then will be more productive working remotely for the next three months while they do well-specified implementation tasks.
Organismic Integration Theory Proposition IV, if you are scoring at home.
I also curled *checks notes* three times this weekend, so that might have something to do with it too.