In this guest post, product experts Alexander Steinhart and Paulo Caroli lay down seven key principles to build products and tech to make a positive impact.
You are a leader facilitating a session, a meeting, or a workshop. Are you building products and do you care about building the right product and building it right? Do you care about improving society via technology and managing technology’s impact on the world? Then this article is for you!
Responsible tech is a way of working that aligns technology and business behavior with environmental, societal, and individual interests. It is tackling sustainability in a holistic way, including both social and environmental topics. It explores and actively considers the values, unintended consequences and negative impacts of tech, and actively manages, mitigates and reduces risk and harm. While there are negative outcomes to look out for and to mitigate, there might also be new ideas to capitalize on.
A facilitator helps organize and guide a meeting, a session or a workshop. In this role, the facilitator is crucial in bringing and fostering the responsible tech conversation.
In this article, we show you seven facilitation principles for responsible tech in order to make a positive impact in the world, through mitigating risks but also by bringing everyone’s attention and cooperation towards tech solutions with positive outcomes. Many of these principles are part of the toolbox of a good facilitator, the key is then to just use and emphasize them more and also apply them to externalities as you would apply them to performance or scalability.
The principles to look into:
- Ensure that the right people are in the room
- Align with company values and responsible values
- Uncover unintended consequences, adverse effects, and negative impacts
- Uncover blind spots
- Actively manage, mitigate and reduce risk and harm
- Understand perspectives to move beyond dilemmas and polarization
- Responsibility also means ensuring accountability
Some topics and examples are about product development, because we are mostly facilitating product-related sessions and workshops. But most of the concepts and tips apply to team and organization sessions.
Let’s look into each of these principles.
Ensure that the right people are in the room
The discussions that happen are shaped by who is actively participating. As a facilitator, you must ensure that the right people have been invited to the meeting, session, or workshop. Also, you want to ensure that everyone participates by fostering a safe space and ensuring equity and inclusion of all participants. You must be involved in the participants’ selection, invitation and inclusion, so you have the most critical ingredients for a successful event: the people fully present and actively participating.
Questions to ask:
- Who is directly affected by the product?
- Who is indirectly affected by the product? (for example with AirBnB, the rental apartment neighbour, and communities)
- Do we have participants that represent these people or are experts included on things we might touch?
- Will the selected participants represent a diverse set of customers right from the beginning?
- Are the participants invited representative of our equity and inclusion goals?
- How can we create a diverse team on multiple levels (including stakeholders)?
- How can we ensure that everybody can express their perspectives?
‘Diversity is being invited to the party; inclusion is being asked to dance,’ as Verna Myers stated. As a facilitator, you must ensure the right people actively participate in the meeting. You must get involved early on and understand and support the group’s diversity, equity, and inclusion.
- Liberating Structures for inclusive facilitation
Align with company values and responsible values
Responsible tech organizations make value-driven decisions and build products that are aligned with their values which incorporate ethical and moral dimensions. As a facilitator, it’s important to help teams and organizations build products and solutions that satisfy their clients and their users by solving their problems while aligning with their values. For responsible organisations these values include ethics and morality, social, and environmental dimensions. The chosen values and issues should become guiding principles and non-functional requirements that the teams can further consider. You must conduct structured activities and conversations that allow people to clarify their values and make decisions based on those for building the right product aligned with the company’s values.
Questions to ask:
- What are our company’s values?
- Are those the right values, do they include ethical and moral aspects?
- Does this product, solution or decision align with our values?
- How can we make the values more tangible? (e.g. through principles)
- What will this value look like in various situations for different users?
- How can we connect the product and product features to our values?
- What behavior would we see in our product that demonstrates this value?
For a product to live up to its promise, it must live up to the company’s and user’s values. The questions above help you to steer the conversation to talk about values, further clarify them and connect them to your further delivery.
Uncover unintended consequences, adverse effects, and negative impacts
‘Love the problem, not the solution,’ is a statement that people use to indicate the importance of building something really useful that addresses underlying needs or problems that a user has. However, even with great intentions and alignment efforts, there might be unintended and unforeseen consequences for the proposed solutions. As a responsible tech facilitator, you must help the group to look beyond the solution (the new problems their solution might create) and how to navigate them actively. Help the group to think about and ‘love the problem, not the solution’ not only for the original problems but also for the problem the solution might create. You must question the group about possible unintended consequences and foster a conversation on how to navigate them actively. The more diverse the team, the easier it is to spot unintended consequences.
Questions to ask:
- Is there a possible unintended consequence or outcome caused by your work?
- Looking from a different angle, is there any unintentional damage you can cause or harm?
- Are there unintended consequences which might also create value?
- How could this affect different groups and markets? What could this mean if another (unintended) group or market starts using it?
- What would it mean if everyone in the world starts using it?
- Are there further prompts we can bring up or hats to wear that bring in more perspectives?
- Imagine things went badly: What would be the negative headlines triggered by our product?
Even with the best intentions, there is always a chance that things will go wrong. Therefore checking for unintended consequences repeatedly helps avoid any undesirable pitfalls. Furthermore, unintended consequences might not just be harmful but also bring value when explored further.
- Prompts and questions provided by Consequence scanning, Tarot cards of tech, Ethical Explorer
- Speculative design
Uncover blind spots
You have listed risks and unforeseen and unintended consequences, but you might not be aware of some of them. These are blind spots: things unknown to you but known to others. Blind spots can cause adverse effects or unintended (positive or negative) consequences too. Therefore, giving visibility to what’s invisible to us is crucial. An effective facilitator should help the group of people understand the overall group knowledge and their gaps. Part of this understanding is uncovering the blind spots so the group can decide how to handle them and not be taken by surprise.
Questions to ask:
- Where might be areas you don’t know enough about?
- What are the things you have to investigate further to uncover your blind spots?
- What are the weaknesses you neglect because of our strengths? (sometimes, your strength creates an unknown liability)
- Are you actively looking for open feedback and listening to it?
- Who is your most annoying stakeholder and what are they saying?
- Who can help you recognize your blind spots?
It is challenging for many people to handle the things they are unaware of. So it is about pointing out the things that do not exist within the group and that no one is aware of. Models like Unconscious Incompetence and the Johari window help to navigate the space of blind spots further.
Actively manage, mitigate, and reduce risk and harm
You have set out to build the right thing, but digital products have a life of their own. Usage, new data, and input values might change their state. You uncover unintended consequences, adverse effects, negative impacts and blind spots. As a facilitator, you want to have an activity to talk about possible risk detection, response, and mitigation.
Questions to ask:
- What should you do to mitigate risk if it becomes an issue?
- What’s our trade-off between value and risk?
- What if everyone did what I’m about to do?
- Are we treating people as ends, or as means?
- Are we maximizing happiness for the greatest number of people?
- Would we be happy for this to be the front-page story in tomorrow’s papers?
In short, you help teams to assess and manage risks, to adhere to compliance and security, and have response processes. You bring forward the important conversation about balancing value and risk. As a result, mature and responsible tech teams develop criticisms, awareness, and responsiveness for possible challenges ahead.
Understand perspectives to move beyond dilemmas and polarization
Not everything is a clear A or B, and often there aren’t “either-or” answers. You might encounter such cases frequently when you talk about values, risks, and unintended consequences. Unfortunately, when there isn’t an apparent A or B, or issues are perceived as dilemmas, people tend to jump from one extreme to the other or feel blocked and overwhelmed. This can lead to indecision, wasted time, and wasted resources. Often, identifying decision criteria, decision guidelines or a decision maker ahead of time can help with this. These decision criteria could also invoke values and principles so that there is more clarity and less deadlock. As a facilitator, you want to help people get unstuck and find a way in between that takes the best of two worlds.
Questions to ask:
- Do we agree on a common goal?
- What are the difficulties?
- Is there a way out of this dilemma? Perhaps a third option?
- What are our decision criteria?
- What are the relevant polarities in those difficulties and dilemmas? Then map out each in more detail with the positive and negative points of each.
- What is the path for us that combines relevant points from both sides?
Talking about the perspectives, making clear trade-offs, and showing a path that will combine the best of two worlds will avoid future disagreements and fasten decisions. The world is not static or straightforward. Thinking, rethinking, and finding new ways to navigate perceived polarities enables responsible tech solutions.
- Polarity Thinking, Polarity Mapping (especially good when working with values)
- Namahn’s Paradox Cards
Responsibility also means ensuring accountability
You have already come a long way to consider the interests of individuals and societies. To walk the talk, as a facilitator, you should help people act on what they intend to do. Instead of leaving the session fuzzy at the end, you must bring clarity. Avoid leaving the group with no next steps, just a list of tasks without an owner or unclear action items.
Questions to ask:
- Who is responsible for this item?
- By when should it be done?
- Can we break this item down into smaller items?
- Who should be informed of the item’s progress?
- Who should be consulted while working on it?
- When do we revisit those topics again?
- Do we have a Responsible tech champion to further address these issues?
By having clear next steps, a to-do list and a clear accountability for each item, you can connect people with actions. It clarifies commitments and accountabilities, making them visible to the whole group and increasing your impact, thereby increasing the impact of your responsible tech work.
By bringing responsible tech to the table you can make a positive impact in the world. As a facilitator, you organize and guide meetings, sessions and workshops. Because of your leading role, it is your duty to make it happen. The next time before you facilitate, revisit this post and compare whether you have considered these principles.
As laid out in the article, it starts with you helping to include the right people. Then, goes into how you can create more clarity around values, unintended consequences, risks and blind spots while navigating dilemmas and polarization productively. In the end, it closes with you ensuring accountability and repeatability.
Last but not least, while facilitating more multiple meetings, sessions or workshops with responsible tech in mind, it is important to figure out ways in which these will be woven into the ways of working of the teams and organizations.
Additional note: If you’re looking for more structure and methods in your facilitation, check out our Responsible tech playbook.
Our special thanks to Alejandro Sánchez, Julien Deswaef, Kelly Cronin, Sathish Viswanathan and Martin Fowler for giving feedback and suggestions to an earlier version of this article.
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