Human Skills 011 - Relationships are how to get things done
with David Jay
David Jay has built a career at the intersection of technology and social movements. He studies relationships, how they form, what impact they have on organizations and movements, and how to set up conditions to best foster their growth.
In this interview, we talk about this intersection point, looking at how to build relationships from a single topic-focused interaction, how those relationships can develop into coalitions to get work done inside of organizations, and how to design events and their 'after-spaces' to best foster this type of relationship-building.
How do you take a topic-focused interaction and turn it into a longer-term relationship?
I think of it as almost this evolutionary search function. You start there, and that gives you an excuse to spend time together. And then in that time you get to explore all kinds of other stuff.
And so if the relationship is good, if the potential is good, you start at that one thing and then you find another thing and another thing and another thing and another thing. And that's a sign that okay, I should I should be making time for this person in my life.
I will often, when I'm reflecting, this is the thing I'll do sort of at New Year's or other times in my life, I will journal about it. I'll sort of draw out, I'll try to map... what am I doing in the relationships in my life? Like what am I currently talking about? What are the relationships, how am I spending time with people in ways that feel good to me? And how am I looking to spend time with people? Like are there things I want to do in my life they don't have, I don't have a relationship for yet?
And that's really helpful because as I go to different events, as I'm sitting through meetings where I meet new people, as I'm going and hanging out with friends of friends, if something comes up that reminds me what are those things I'm looking for, I can notice stop and focus on that. And maybe go to that person after the whatever event just happened and be like, hey, I really liked what you said. Do you have five minutes to talk right now?
And then that five minutes might lead to a coffee. And we're not starting that coffee conversation sort of cold guessing at what we might be interested in. We found a thread of what we might be interested in. And we're seeing where that leads us.
How do you start to build coalitions inside a workplace?
When I was at the Center for Humane Technology, I started doing this trick where I would know people who are in integrity teams or trust and safety teams or responsible innovation teams. And I would have regular conversations. I'd become friends with them through the tools we just mentioned. And I would say... I'd say something like, "tell me, what's top of mind for you? What are you trying to figure out?"
If you're inside of a company and you're dealing with any product challenge, there's way more problem to deal with probably than you have the capacity. So like, what are you looking to deal with?
And I would hear people who would say things like, "there are a range of challenges around youth mental health that we were trying to do something about, but our team is limited." Or "we have a really big election coming up, and we're doing everything we can around this election. But we want to, we're just isolated on our team, and it kind of touches every part of the product surface area. So we need people from across the company to be collaborating with us around how to prepare for this election."
I became really good at creating afterspaces. So what I do, and this is a fake example, because I don't wanna give real examples, but it shows the tactic. What I do is, let's say it's an election, and it's coming up. I would find a handful of outside experts who knew a lot about the risk vectors related to that election. And they wouldn't necessarily be critical of the platform, but they would have a lot of really good information that product teams need to know on the inside.
And I would put together an event for people, for my allies on the inside, that would basically be like, "look, here's some experts. They're gonna tell you what they know, and then you can ask them questions. And they are gonna ask zero questions about the product, zero questions about like anything that you would feel sensitive. See this as an information transfer from them to you."
That made it easier to manage NDAs and other things. So then the folks I was working with would go and they would advertise on a bunch of Slack channels and they would find everyone, everyone they could around the org who cared about elections. Who maybe wasn't part of the election integrity team, but for whom this mattered personally,, like it was a thing they wanted to talk about, right?
The whole point of getting these people here - there was value in getting the people to, getting the experts I had brought in to educate people - But the real value was getting everyone in a virtual room together. And getting people to see what are other people's questions about this.
So then I would transition from, and sometimes I do this in Zoom, sometimes I do this in other platforms like Air Meet that have a little better affordances for this. We would transition from a usual audience question and answer format to getting people in the audience to talk with one another in small groups.
Sometimes I would prompt them. Sometimes I would let it be more loose. Sometimes I prompt them and then get it to be more loose. But my goal was I want as many people in this audience as possible to find one other person who said a thing that they're interested in. I want people to have a little flag that goes off that's like, "oh, that, her over there, she seems cool. I want to talk to her."
And then I want to give them a space where they're sort of free, where they can make those conversations happen, where they've got maybe just 15 minutes where everyone who wants to, talk to the person who you're most interested in talking to, that you've heard say something in this presentation. And those liquid spaces afterward, when they happen well they are magical.
I've seen so many things come out of them - some really powerful product features, new teams have been formed, conferences have been seeded in those little spaces after the event, where people are just sort of following up on the threads that have come up that are most valuable to them.
So when I'm in a room, when I'm in a meeting, I'm sort of like looking for who in the room kind of gets a little highlight flag on them that's like, "oh, that's someone I wanna follow up and talk with." And then ideally I don't have to arrange that time with them cold, I can talk to them for a few minutes afterward to establish why it's worth taking the time to have a coffee.
But I'm often looking to design for that kind of after space where people see, know who they want to talk to. And if I if I'm joining events, and my goal is to form relationships, I'm looking for events that are structured to have that.
So I'm looking around for events that not just have food and drinks afterward, but do the work to let me and everyone else know who we should be excited to talk to in that time.
How do you design successful events?
I often will... it's almost like I'm doing little tests with my event planning. And sometimes I'm doing tests by like floating thing in Slack and seeing who's interested. But I am finding a really interesting question around a topic and seeing if there's people who are hungry to talk about it.
I'm listening for that feeling of like, "oh wow, if there's a lot of people who wanna talk about this thing and don't have a space to do it," then I know I'm onto something.
Usually that'll start with an experience that I've had where I see something that's missing, that sort of should be there, but isn't. I'll go and I'll just experimentally talk to people around me and see if that resonates with a few of my friends or other people I'm connected to. And if it does, then they sort of become allies to help put something together.
And then I'll host events, or I will go to events on related things and sort of raise this as a question. And I'm looking for maybe three to five people who are from different parts of the organization or from different organizations, if this is a sort of professional network level cross organizational thing, who come from different perspectives, all of whom share this idea that something should happen here.
And if I can build that like cross-intersecting alliance of people who are excited about it, then together we can make a lot happen because I've got people who can share the work of organizing with me.
I've got people who can advertise it to their respective domains. So more people come in. And whenever I bring people together and connect them and create that after space, the thing that I'm looking for are people who I can connect with and meet with and plug into that network of proactive leaders.
What is the value of putting in the work to create more relationships?
I will answer that in three ways because one of my, I don't know hobbies/passions, is studying complex relational systems studying how using information theory and other some other kind of agent-based modeling non-linear dynamics to study what happens when relationships form. There's sort of three things that happen.
The first is that information flows throughout the system more powerfully. So if you imagine a place with a bunch of silos, those silos are breaking down. If you imagine a bunch of individual people who feel sort of like stuck in their corner, the people who are good at forming relationships feel less stuck in their corner. They know more about opportunities that are happening, they know more about, they're a source of new information to the people around them, and they just have a lot more options to move in.
The second is resilience. When there's a lot of relationships within a system, if something hard happens, then all of the relationships rally to fix it. I'm part of a professional network called the Integrity Institute, which I recommend if there's any integrity or trust and safety employees on the call, I recommend checking out. It is a professional network of integrity workers built around these sort of community organizing dynamics that does some really powerful work. And every once in a while, this just happened recently, someone like Meta will go and a big wave of layoffs.
And when that happens, a bunch of people come to the integrity suit community and they tell their stories and they say, "hey, I was part of this roll of layoffs." And then they have a whole community of people who are helping them network to find another job.
So when communities exist... we see the same thing when there are a bunch of threats emerging because there's an election, suddenly people can support one another across platforms in ways they couldn't before, in ways that are really, really powerful. So that sort of support and resilience is another key piece.
And then the last is a form of creative evolution, that the places where relationships happen, because they're places where things cross pollinate, because they're places where people can support new ideas, tend to be the places where new and interesting things emerge.
If I've got a thing that I'm excited about, say it's related to a new way of classifying harms related to election integrity. And it's not a thing that I really have room to work on in my job or really have anyone in my immediate team who wants to support me around, but I've got a network of relationships and some of those relationships exist because other people are excited about the same things I am. I'm more likely to have a space where I get to kind of have support and encouragement to tinker and create something new that may wind up being really, really powerful and really, really important. So relationships make us more creative and kind of speed up the clock rate of evolution of the things we're working on.
Emergent Strategy by Adrienne Marie Brown, which talks a lot about the structure of movements, but in a way that centers relationship formation, and I think has a lot of good inspiration for how to do this work.
The Art of Gathering by Priya Parker, which talks specifically about how to design events, if that's a thing that people wanna do
Links to David
Thanks for reading Human Skills! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.