Why a workshop for AI works

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A recent article in the New Yorker, entitled “Was Email a Mistake?” is a fascinating account of the mathematics of distributed systems and suggests that meetings might be better. The core of the argument is that synchronous (at the same time) communication is more efficient in many of our modern work settings because asynchronous (not at the same time) communication exponentially increases the complexity and difficulty of dealing with knowledge sharing and decision making. This is particularly relevant when trying to figure out – or refresh – an AI or data science initiative.

A workshop remains the gathering of choice for most leaders, particularly when there’s a need to prioritize opportunities or to align on change leadership. This is especially valuable when a company needs to determine its AI strategy, to understand the state of its AI and data assets and to set the stage for the unique governance needs of an AI-first company.

We think there are four important features of workshops that make them a great way to tackle AI.

Democratization and diversity of ideas

Many workshops use design thinking techniques and come with liberal use of post-it notes. Post-it notes are great for signaling egalitarianism. A VP’s post-it note is the same size as one from a worker from the manufacturing line. This has the effect of reducing how conscious people are of hierarchy or other “us/them” norms that may exist.

In AI, diversity and respect for all views is vital. AI is highly technical and specialized; people can lack confidence or be intimidated by people who know more about the technology. Design thinking-style workshops that encourage everyone’s participation are an important step in creating AI that’s human-centered and ethical.

The act of writing

Forming letters and words is more than a motor skill; it also involves thinking and language. Research highlighted in a recent book by Edward Tenner, The Efficiency Paradox, makes the point that writing is inefficient (compared with typing) but that this is a good thing if the goal is to increase learning and memory. Our brains need an optimum level of resistance, just as our muscles do with physical exercise, in order to get stronger and retain information.

Psychologists call this “desirable difficulty.” In a workshop where everyone is handwriting their ideas, participants learn as they do. It’s messy and sometimes inefficient but when people afterwards are asked what they remember, it’s always the things they wrote down that stick the most. When ideas are flowing especially thick and fast, and people are forced to paraphrase, the very act of constraining how to scribe an idea can force a new level of clarity.

In an AI-focused workshop, the act of writing can be seen as a bit on an anachronism but it’s a vital part of developing a shared understanding of the complexity of the data system and infrastructure, and how AI opportunities connect with the business goals.

A workshop is a landscape

A workshop isn’t just a room full of people; it’s a landscape, a terrain that people explore. Edward Tenner points to many aspects of three dimensional space that get missed in an online environment, such as skills of spacial memory and associations between objects and ideas. His ideas can likely be extended to workshops; while online collaboration is more efficient for studying and understanding details, and for exploring ideas that people are already familiar with, the terrain of a workshop is better suited to grasping “big ideas.” Working our brains and bodies in three dimensions in the physical world, changes the way we learn, remember and collaborate later on.

In AI, participants are often at very different stages of learning about the technology opportunity. Working in the physical world, in a social context, can help cement key concepts and insights.

Meaningful group gatherings

Good workshops create meaningful connections. They can feel like a dinner with family or a cocktail party with friends. Some of this is because of the density of fellow human beings around us. As Priya Parker points out in her recent book, The Art of Gathering, as humans we have an innate sense of the right number of people in a space for a gathering to be inviting, social and safe. Poster boards, flip charts and a creative floor layout can all create the right density of people and help to make it feel like a social gathering. This allows people to drop some of their everyday workplace defenses. Inhibitions drop, creativity is unlocked and people make friends.

A workshop can be instrumental in creating psychological safety in organizations. In the book, The Culture Code, author Daniel Coyle finds that what’s required for groups to thrive is less about how smart people are and more about what connections are formed between people in the group. Alex Pentland from the MIT Human Dynamics Lab lists measurable factors including that everyone in the group talks and listens in equal measure while keeping contributions short, high levels of eye contact, energetic gestures and direct communication between team members, not just with the team leader.

Workshops, more than most other work gatherings, are where people jostle, can high-five or communicate through non-verbal cues and engage all their senses. The Culture Code describes “collisions” as the life blood of any organization and the key driver of creativity, community and cohesion.

People can be concerned about AI and its potential dehumanizing effects. A workshop speaks to the value of human connection and can shift the emphasis away from replacing humans to augmenting humans.

In this age of “move fast and break things,” AI designed for humans is both desired and required. The workshop remains the domain of humans rather than machines.

At Sonder Scheme, we help humans win in the age of AI, with practical services, training and tools. We combine deep expertise in AI with decades of experience working with leading organizations including Adobe, Apple, Cisco, Fonterra, Google, Morgan Stanley, National Headstart Association, the New York Times, Quartz, Transpower NZ, US Department of Energy and the World Green Building Council.

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