Specific techniques to focus on seeking truth and Riot vs. Zynga discussion with Drew Levin
Trevor stopped suddenly. His breathing was a little uneven, and he was distraught. Trevor looked up, and as his eyes scanned the faces of the other people involved in the discussion, his eyes met mine for a brief moment. As he looked away, I could see an expression of embarrassment on his face as he stood up and left the room.
“Trevor, wait!” I called as I also left the room in pursuit.
Trevor turned abruptly. “I quit.”, he said. “All we do is argue, and Dave is a fucking idiot. There is no way I can stay on this project.”
I changed Trevor’s name for anonymity, but the “fucking idiot” was named Dave, and he was eventually fired six months later.
A 2019 Harvard Business Review article titled “How to Debate Ideas Productively at Work” suggests two key points:
- “Research tells us that cognitive diversity makes a group smarter.”
- “Studies also show that most mergers and acquisitions don’t fail because of conflict. They fail from the ‘organizational silence; that stems from the fear of conflict.”
On the one hand, in many corporate environments, discussion and debate can often turn into personal attacks focusing on “winning” arguments rather than seeking truth. And on the other hand, you may have an organization where employees altogether avoid debate or bringing up important issues to avoid conflict.
During business school, I got a rare opportunity to study under Nonaka-sensei at Hitotsubashi University in Japan. One of the greatest lessons I learned from him was the concept of dialectical synthesis:
If done right, discussion and debate should lead to better understanding, knowledge expansion, and ultimately better outcomes.
Given the potential advantages, why do so many disagreements at companies turn out so badly?
Drew Levin is Director of Product at Riot Games and formerly held a similar role at Zynga. Besides being an all-around great dude, nice guy, and super bright, Drew has a unique perspective from two companies with wildly different cultural environments that influence discussion and debate at those companies.
Be sure to check out this deep and, for me, critical and insightful discussion with Drew below:
Zynga vs. Riot Games
Zynga has a reputation as a company that openly promotes debate with a very data-oriented focus on resolving conflict: “Shut the fuck up with your opinion and just show me the data.”
Further, the word on the street is that part of the evaluation of your performance at the company is how well you deal with confrontation and how well you perform in arguments.
According to Drew on Zynga:
Zynga is a very PM dominated culture for better and for worse. There are strongly expressed good and bad things that come out of that.
One of the things that comes out of that is the sort of baseline expectation among PMs on game teams that they’re going to be able to make calls. And so when someone asks a PM to justify their decision, the very good PMs will bring data and express an axiom we’re probably gonna talk about later: Strong opinions, loosely held.
There are others that when challenged react defensively and reflexively as though it’s offensive to them that someone would question whether or not they get to make this decision. And they resort to dishonest ways of engaging with the topic, because that is more comfortable for them than yielding ground or saying, “Yeah, you’re right. We should do it your way.” because there is also a status orientation at play. There is [the view that] I exist in an organizational structural hierarchy and I don’t want to give up the status and the comfort that goes with that even for a moment to someone who might get used to challenging me.
Zynga tends to attract and be more willing to hire people who are good at what I would characterize as debate club argumentation. Where you are more willing to and more interested in winning arguments versus reaching the truth.
I think that the very best folks at Zynga pretty uniformly are truth seeking rather than argument winning.
The good, but like not great people at Zynga tend to be more mixed in their orientation. When I say truth seeking versus argument winning it goes back to how you and I disagree. How much do I try to understand your perspective?
In contrast to Zynga, Riot Games has a reputation as a company that promotes harmony, teamwork, and “no assholes.”
From an outsider’s perspective, the view is that the company actively promotes collaboration over conflict and that individual employee feelings should be protected.
Drew’s perspective on Riot and in contrast to Zynga:
Riot has five values that it holds up. You can go to the Riot website and look at the Values page.
And these things get invoked in all sorts of internal processes conversations, and they drive a tremendous amount of first principles alignment. It isn’t a question of “what are we optimizing on here?”
One of the things that is really prominent at Zynga is the question of: Does this technique, or does this feature, does this approach work?
And “does it work?” is characterized very, very often in business terms. Did we drive a revenue lift? Did we drive retention lift? Did we drive an engagement lift? And you measure that, you experiment on it, you do a readout on it. You share that out with people and people say, “this team observed this uplift from approaching things this way.”
We are going to start by assuming that is valid data that we can apply in some way to our context. And that becomes evidence in favor of doing this thing. So Zynga learns very aggressively, shares info very aggressively, and tries to optimize both within a game and across its portfolio very well. And again, finds people who respect that as a valid source of wisdom and encourages them to propagate it as often as possible.
Riot is easily the place where I’ve seen the most first principles alignment about what it is to have an idea be valid or successful because of how tightly aligned people are on first principles.
There isn’t a question of what are we trying to optimize here? It’s we have these values. Everyone knows them. You have to have an orientation towards them pretty strongly in order to get through our interview process. And so when you get into disagreements, the disagreement space is actually more constrained because it isn’t “what are we trying to get as our north star outcome here?”
The north star is always the stuff on the website. You can go read it again. It’s what is the best way to create outcomes aligned with these values? And so you’re not having all of these hidden arguments about should we have a loot table that has value X or 2X. Like very, very common tuning economy discussion in games. You can have a multifaceted, multi-layered disagreement about that.
“Should we be generous in our loot tables?” is one aspect of it. “What are we trying to do by creating this loot table and implementing it in the game?” is another.
A lot of those sub-level disagreements are more explicitly defined and called out at Riot. It isn’t that there is no room to disagree with them. It’s that, that doesn’t come up in a lot of discussions. You start by having aligned on that stuff because people think about it really, really deeply. And so what you disagree with is a much narrower, more constrained space.
It isn’t that Riot hires a bunch of people who are like kumbaya hold hands and sing, it’s that it works really hard to say, “Here’s what we’re about. Here’s what we’re trying to accomplish. Here’s what the realm of successful outcomes looks like.”
And you can get on board with that. And, we have a really strong perspective about how to make games as a result.
Environment: Impact of Company Culture
Is it the person or the environment?
Drew and I discuss the impact of a company’s culture and systems in promoting an environment conducive to constructive discussion and debate.
I can’t emphasize enough just how poorly engineered many companies have designed their company cultures to discourage open discussion and debate.
From my own experience, the biggest mistakes I have seen include:
- Rewarding performance culture: Many companies set up meetings and discussions on important topics in a way that invites bravado and unnecessary machoism. Don’t create environments where two people are arguing with a big audience and the establishment of a gladiator and arena vibe. Also, when companies promote those who are great at debates (but often lack fundamental skills), this only reinforces a culture of winning arguments vs. seeking truth. Companies should instead focus on promoting those prioritizing product and company outcomes over performative bullshit.
- Lack of AORs (areas of responsibility): When a company’s decision-making is unclear, you almost always have politics and nonsense. Poor leaders often intentionally keep AORs vague, so they have someone to blame for their mistakes once poor outcomes become evident. Having clear AORs with a clear decision-maker that owns both accountability and responsibility eliminates the vast majority of nonsense and wasted time and allows people to give feedback directly to decision-makers. Further, decision makers clear in their authority can stop wasting time trying to win arguments and instead focus on making the right decisions.
- Lack of safety: It’s still astonishing how many companies create environments where it’s not safe to admit mistakes. Companies where employees lack safety lead to environments in which too many people will lie, mischaracterize, or even undermine initiatives to hide their mistakes.
Individual: Techniques to Argue Constructively
Ultimately, we all have the power to be better and to do the right thing regardless of our environment. And even in positive or neutral environments, it’s often challenging to not succumb to ego or the inability to de-personalize arguments.
While I don’t claim to be an expert, some specific techniques and recommendations to help argue more constructively at the individual level are listed below:
- Steel Man technique: In contrast to developing “straw man arguments” that attempt to undermine opposing perspectives, the “steel man” proposes the opposite. The steel man technique suggests keeping an open mind by considering the best and most convincing parts of an opposing perspective. So before countering, one should explain the opposing argument in the best form possible.
- Complexification: The author Adam Grant writes about a technique called “complexification” in his post “How to Argue about Abortion.” In short, this technique aims to stop thinking about issues as binary right or wrong simplification but rather to boil down arguments into more specific and complex parts. I’ll leave it to the reader to follow up on the specifics of this technique. However, research from this paper “Get Complicated: The Effects of Complexity on Conversations over Potentially Intractable Moral Conflicts” suggests that complexifying issues can dramatically improve understanding. The article cites an experiment leading to a boost from 46% to 100% in having abortion opponents write an agreed-upon joint statement.
- Ray Dalio from Principles: From the master himself, Ray Dalio has been a great source of wisdom on many topics. On this topic of discussion and debate, Dalio has four points I want to highlight from his book Principles: “#1. Don’t be open-minded with everyone. Spend your time exploring ideas with the most believable people you have access to. #2. If you’re at an impasse, agree on a person you both respect and enlist them to help moderate the discussion. #3. At the point of diminishing returns you might just agree to disagree. #4. Triangulate with smart people.”
To wrap up, I want to emphasize just how important it is to have a company and environment where discussion and debate can occur constructively. A conducive environment to arguing constructively can mean the difference between success and failure on many projects.
Also, being at a company that discourages debate will lead to sub-optimal ways of operating and will, for many people, be a miserable workplace.
Please carefully consider the points made in this post, and let’s make the world better through constructive debate!