Reveling in Constructive Friction: Freakonomics Author Stephen Dubner on the Importance of Conflicting Perspectives

Barney Beal, Former Content Director

October 20, 2020

In a wide-ranging interview with Oracle NetSuite Executive vice president Evan Goldberg, Steven Dubner, the journalist, podcaster co-author of “Freakonomics” touched on everything from how much everyone hates meetings to how little Americans understand their own money. And for each topic, Dubner offered his distinct takes.

For instance, during the recent Business Forward event, Goldberg asked Dubner about the so-called “planning fallacy,” which speaks to the tendency to underestimate the time it will take to complete a project despite evidence to the contrary. Rather than fret over this tendency and how to correct it, Dubner attributed the behavior to our collective optimism bias, and he encouraged developing and including outside-the-box thinking as a tonic.

Along those lines, he suggested a “pre-mortem,” in which a project team looks forward two years into the future, imagines its project as a total failure and analyzes why it failed. Doing so, he said, provides a project team with a way of looking at things through lenses it may not have considered. The problem, he said, is that many organizations aren’t comfortable entertaining contrarian views.

“A lot of history was created by the total outliers and anomalists,” Dubner said during the discussion, which was part of the month-long Now On Air virtual conference(opens in new tab). “We haven’t had an Einstein since Einstein.”

Contrarian Views Abound

When the discussion shifted to meetings — a hot topic in a world where workers are suffering from round-the-clock Zoom fatigue — Dubner’s affinity for those contrarian views reared its head again.

In fact, he started by noting the double-edged relationship most people have with meetings to begin with.

“Most of us don’t like meetings,” he said. “On the other hand, if you take away all of our meetings, we get really unhappy.”

Dubner suggested that most meetings are ineffective because they’re vague and recycled. He called out weekly check-in meetings as the biggest offenders, suggesting that team leaders not schedule meetings unless there is a specific question to answer or problem to solve.

He also recommended scheduling meetings for odd durations, such as 12 minutes, to get people’s attention and pique their curiosity.

But what Dubner really thinks sets a meeting apart is when every possible viewpoint is invited. Typically, he said, the noisiest and most outwardly confident employees tend to dominate the conversation, and are often seen as the people with ideas. He believes the opposite is true, and that the quiet introverts—the people who sit with their thoughts—are the ones most likely to have fresh ideas.

The only way to get at those hidden ideas, he said, is to encourage healthy disagreement.

“The best meetings are when there’s a good constructive friction,” he said.

Even on the topic of the COVID-19 pandemic, Dubner had a different perspective, calling out some of the valuable and unexpected lessons it’s unearthing.

For instance, he said the massive shift toward working remotely has provided an ideal opportunity to understand what makes employees most productive, and perhaps employers will emerge with new insights into how to create a more effective and enticing work environment.

He also called out the sudden surge in the use of telemedicine, which has gone from a curiosity with possible future implications to a core method of delivering care pretty much overnight.

Dubner stressed that while the pandemic has clearly been a tragic global crisis, it also has exposed one of the best human qualities.

“We’re going to dig in and find silver linings,” he said.

What To Do About Data

One area he’d like to see the world dig into is data. The pandemic has only highlighted the numerous benefits waiting for us if only we could effectively marshal the countless pools of data we’re creating to connect all the dots. Sadly, we appear to still be a long way from that, he said.

Dubner suggested that the pandemic has exposed just how far the health care industry still has to go in order to fulfill the promise of centralized electronic health records we’ve been hearing about for 30 years. He cited a study that found some hospitals unable to confirm whether they’d seen emergency patients previously, and occasions when payment info or image scans were stored on an individual employee’s hard drive, making it inaccessible if that employee wasn’t at work.

Still, he believes there’s light at the end of the tunnel, and that the global hunt for a COVID-19 vaccine is revolutionizing medical research, in part because of the data sharing component.

But while there’s a growing belief that we should be teaching data fluency to high school students, Dubner believes that a more effective approach is to design technology and laws with data in mind.

He pointed to the overwhelming evidence that Americans don’t understand how to manage their money, citing a study in which only 25% of American adults correctly answered a series of simple questions about how interest works, and whether stocks are safer than mutual funds. Those findings suggested to Dubner that laws designed to protect people from financial predators would be more effective than trying to teach all Americans how to understand financial information.

Getting Back to Disagreeing

Ultimately, Dubner said he doesn’t take contrarian viewpoints to be difficult; he does so because he believes they are the foundation of a healthy society.

Dubner, who is Jewish, noted that modern Jewish thinking is based largely on the fierce debates between the houses of Hillel and Shammai 2,000 years ago. While Hillel’s more-tolerant arguments ultimately were widely adopted, both are preserved in the Talmud today.

Dubner believes that the spirit of respectful disagreement — the “constructive friction” he said was the key to a good meeting — has been removed from modern discourse, much to our detriment.

Watch a recording of Dubner’s conversation(opens in new tab) with Evan Goldberg and register for more Business Forward events.

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