Getting Credit for Making other people shine

Imagine that you’re the leader of a group project, and it’s going great. Together your team has produced something far better than each of you could have done on your own. How do you give people credit not just for what each one contributed — but for making their teammates more effective?

Here’s an intriguing approach — a twist on, of all things, the typical high-school debate.

High-school debating tournaments in the U.S. follow something called the “Lincoln-Douglas Debate” format (who knew it had a name?) in which teams square off against each other to argue either the affirmative or the negative side of some issue (guns or income taxes or immigration). It’s a zero-sum game: The team that does the best job arguing its side wins. By definition, winning involves tearing the other side down. Change the scoring just a little bit and you can turn a test of wills into a test of people’s collaboration chops. At least that’s the idea behind computer scientist/philosopher Brian Christian’s “Anti-Lincoln-Douglas debate,” which he writes about in his new book The Most Human Human.

As Christian describes it, one team might be told that its goal is to increase individual liberty, the other to increase individual safety. But then, instead of the usual routine, the teams have to work together to come up with a piece of legislation that achieves both of their goals (Christian gives the example of a five-point gun bill). Each team member then argues for why the legislation fulfills her own team’s goal, and the judges award points for the best argument, just as they would in a traditional debate. But here’s the kicker — both teams earn the same score — the sum of the two scores.

As in a traditional tournament, each team then pairs up round-robin to create more legislation with other teams, and at the end of the day the team with the most points wins. All day long, people are scored in the usual way on their ability to argue their own side. But the overall scoring system favors the team whose members are best able to promote not only their own goals but also the other teams’ goals.

Consider how that might work in a business setting, where teams are made up of individuals representing different business functions — say, sales, R&D, design, manufacturing. Each person retains his or her own measure of success: increased sales; cutting-edge products; compelling design; efficient manufacturing. But each project is judged on the basis of the highest overall score — the best combination of metrics. Over time, the individuals participating in the teams that get the highest scores get the highest bonuses. Do this long enough and you can see not only which team members foster collaborative efforts but perhaps which departments have a more collaborative culture.

Christian’s book, by the way, is about the contest for a prize that rewards computers for passing as human in a five-minute “conversation.” (The Loebner Prize is awarded annually to the computer program that can best pass the Turing test — the one devised by famed mathematician Alan Turing, who suggested that we could deem a computer able to think if after conversing with it for five minutes we couldn’t tell it apart from a human). In each competition, a computer is paired with an actual person and, after talking to both (via e-mail) for five minutes, a judge decides which is which. There’s a prize not only for the computer — but also for the human — most often judged human (thus the title of the book). That people often lose this contest says a lot about the mechanical nature of a lot of our interactions. That collaborative conversations are hard for computers to emulate, Christian suggests, says something about the roots of human creativity.

Whether you agree or not, his main point bears thinking about: “Imagine the national Lincoln-Douglas champion and the national Anti-Lincoln-Douglas champion: Which one would you rather attend a diplomatic summit?” he asks. “Which one would you rather be married to?” I might add, “Which one would you rather do business with?”


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