Thursday, February 03, 2005

Serving on a jury / Collaborating on a judgment

Over "the holidays" (late December and into January), I found myself serving on a jury in a court of law here in the United States. Instead of arranging and taking a last-minute trip to Europe to celebrate the new year (as I was thinking of doing and was being encouraged to do), I sat in a jury box watching and listening as opposing sides in a tricky civil case fought to win me over.

I had served as a jury alternate a few years ago, present at the full trial but then not permitted to participate in jury deliberations at the trial's conclusion. On another occasion, I was selected as a jury member, only to watch things end immediately following the prosecution's presentation of opening arguments when the case was settled out of court.

Few people I have asked have ever wanted to serve on this kind of jury, since most have argued that they have better and more profitable things to do. And I've always been troubled by the idea that justice is well-served by placing a critical decision in the hands of 10-12 citizens, most of whom do not want to be involved. (My knowledge of the research of Elizabeth Loftus only strengthened this concern.)

But I've always wanted to participate in a jury's deliberations, to experience directly what that can be like.

So, I got my chance.

Success in the business of "user experience" requires working together -- bringing multiple perspectives to bear on a problem -- collaborating on a judgment. And rarely do participants in this process think it is done particularly well. There are excellent methodologies for doing this well, most of which rely on a good facilitator. But few know of or employ them.

So, just how well might a somewhat randomly selected group of jurors work together, locked in a room, assembled around a table to debate the issues of this tricky case, and guided by a foreman selected from among them?

I was impressed.

Did things go as smoothly as they could have? Not exactly. Jurors often talked over each other, got frustrated and upset, insisted that only their perspective could be right, etc.

Did jurors consider more than the evidence presented in court, contrary to the instructions of the judge? Yes.

Were jurors swayed by an inaccurate understanding of the way memory and remembering works? Of course (see the work of Elizabeth Loftus referenced earlier).

Did irrelevant factors (e.g., a desire to not have to come back the next day) sometimes influence how jurors voted? Yes.

Nevertheless, I was impressed -- greatly. All jurors took their responsibility very seriously. All jurors cared about reaching a just judgment. All jurors made significant contributions to the deliberations. All jurors ultimately seemed to give consideration to the input of the others. And almost all jurors contributed to the facilitation of the process. In the end, all jurors seemed to think very highly of all of their colleagues and that our final judgment was as just as it could be.

Do I think there is a better way to run a collaborative session? Yes.

But on the basis of this experience, I'd be happy to serve on a jury again someday, though preferably not instead of ushering in a new year in Paris.