Class One vs. Class Two disagreements

I’ve been reading a lot about Xerox PARC in the 70’s (well, if you consider two books “a lot”). PARC is mostly known as the foil to the upstart hacker computer company Apple. It’s likely now most known by its role as the corporate behemoth, too slow and unimaginative to understand the power of the technology it had developed at PARC, in the slightly apocryphal story of Steve Jobs seeing some of that technology during a demo and applying it at Apple. The computer introduced after that fateful demo was the Lisa, which broadly introduced the revolutionary graphical user interface, the foundation for every personal computer UI since.

The story of PARC is like any interesting tale, filled with peculiar characters with their own desires and intentions and personalities. At PARC, there were competing personalities and backgrounds (though heavily academic) and visions of the future, both within and without. Take a sufficiently large group of passionate, strong-willed personalities, put them in a confined space, shake them up, and there’s a good chance something interesting will be produced. At PARC, this was the invention of Ethernet, of processor multitasking, of overlapping windows in UI, of personal distributed computing, of object-oriented programming, WYSIWYG, and numerous other inventions that moved the computer industry forward in leaps and bounds.

The man at the center of it all was Bob Taylor. There’s a whole history of his management styles down to his team and up to his managers, and the conflicts he caused with his peers that he felt weren’t advancing his vision of computing, and his eschewing of traditional corporate politics leading to a slow implosion of PARC as a whole, but…that’s for the aforementioned books to explain.

That he was able to take a room full of strong-willed engineers each with their own passions and interests and ideas about how things should be done, and set them to work on an incredible run of invention and progress, is an impressive feat of management.

One of the main models that has come out about Taylor’s management style is that of Class 1 vs. Class 2 disagreements. He’s quoted as saying1:

“I divide every disagreement into two classes,” Bob Taylor was telling me. “Class One is when two people disagree and neither can explain to the other person’s satisfaction that other person’s point of view. A Class Two disagreement is when each can explain to the other’s satisfaction the other’s point of view.”

He paused. “Class One is destructive. Most wars and pain and suffering in the world are based on Class One disagreements. Class Two disagreements enable people to work together even when they disagree.”

The key to his management style, he said, was to avoid Class One disagreements, and when he encountered them, to turn them into Class Two.

I like that way of thinking. As a basic tent of good faith discussion, one should always work toward having the other side understand your point of view, and vice versa. Remove the assumptions, add the missing context, explain the priors. Im not sure all Class 1 discussions can become Class 2, but hopefully, our discussions will be all the better for trying.