Interview: Daniel Mezick

Crafting Social Protocols

Dan Mezick, I am super excited about your work at the intersection of process and getting things done, rooting both in culture and game design!

One of the core elements you talk about and the gaming world identifies is the ability to opt in. It really seems to change the design considerations for social flows and the way that resources and skills get deployed. We can’t control minds the way factory processes could watch and control bodies. So it seems to me that the productivity of a creative or knowledge worker almost necessarily has to be opt-in if we want effective participation.

I think you take this a step further by talking about the social protocols we can use together when we are opting into a group in order to get something done. What do you mean by social protocols?


Protocols are structured interactions between two or more people. Personal interaction mechanics when using protocols includes understanding your role in any interaction. For example, the Scrum framework uses a protocol in the Daily Scrum. The participants are required to answer three specific structured questions. There are no discussions during the Daily Scrum about other topics.

Protocols are games. You opt-in, there is a clear goal, a clear rule set, and a clear way to track progress during the interaction. Protocols are a good, satisfying, formal way to game your interactions.


Somehow I am not surprised to hear someone in the software field interested in structured speech as a key to effective communication, given that code is always a structured form of speech. You don’t just mean code though, you also mean dialogue. What do you mean by structured speech?


Structured speech is used in structured interactions. Speech is a form of action. Structured speech is useful for managing how others perceive what you say and the meaning of your verbal and written communication.

Structured speech is speech that has a recurring form or syntax and varying content. In Agile practice, user stories represent a practical application of structured speech. Statements in a standard form are used for specifying software requirements. The standard structure is of the form:

As [a user type] I want to [perform an action] so that [specific result]

Ed Seykota, the famous commodities trader who pioneered quantitative market trading methods and trend following in the 1960’s, popularized the use of Subject-Verb-Object, present tense syntax (SVO-p) for English language communications in the 1990’s.

Indirect syntax can often obscure the subject and encourage the dodging of direct responsibility. Indirect forms of verbal communication can make the intended meaning difficult to figure out. SVO-p (Subject-Verb-Object, present-tense) is a very clear syntax for communicating clearly and directly. SVO-p is a syntax of the English language. It is a style of communication in which you always know who is responsible for an action. SVO-p is an active form of language that encourages clear thinking, direct communication, and unambiguous meaning. The use of active voice in the present tense supports immediate action in the present moment. Using SVO-p can help clarify your thinking.

Structured interactions increase the potential for individual and group learning by reducing the possible range of interactions in a given context. When the risk of conflict is high, structured interactions help to mitigate that risk. Such interactions create containment.

Another form of structured speech is Nonviolent Communication, or NVC. Speaking to others using NVC includes sending and receiving observations, feelings, needs, and requests. As such, this form of structured speech has some aspects of a strong (well-defined, unambiguous) protocol because it defines both sending and receiving of information. However, there is no need to get agreement from the other person when using NVC, to make it work. You can just use it. When you use NVC, you use it for listening and speaking. NVC works by identifying and acknowledging the needs of others and expressing your own needs. The premise is that most behavior is an attempt to meet various forms of needs. NVC acknowledges this and provides language that helps communicate using this model of human interaction.


Why does this matter? Or better yet, how does this help us?


Group learning increases when we employ structured interactions, because the structure creates a safe space. When we engage in high-risk interactions in groups, the safety level drops quickly. Interpersonal risk skyrockets as feelings of safety plummet. Consider for example a conflict by and between team members regarding a course of action. Without structure, that discussion can tip into a chaotic state where hurt feelings, confusion, and denial are present. That leads to exponential decay in communication frequency about essential work topics.

Situations like this are very common when working in groups. Structured interactions create a known container inside of which the interactions take place. That container creates safety. Structured interactions are in fact games with opt-in participation, a clear goal, set of rules, and way to track progress and get feedback. Structured interactions are good games. When viewed in this way, it is easy to see how structured interactions work. They create a space that makes crucial conversations possible.


So, should we be using these protocols all the time?


It is important to realize that agreed-upon protocols only have to be used about five percent of the time. The remainder of the time, you may use casual interactions. But when the situation requires agreement and action, the group uses structured interactions (protocols) to discuss, brainstorm, interact, provide feedback, and make decisions. Use protocols when the stakes are high and the group must move to action or a decision. When conflict is present, it is good operating policy to “drop into” a protocoled mode.

At first, the use of protocols can seem formal. But the formality passes after you gain experience with these tools. Protocols provide a structure for respectful investigation into important work that has the potential to generate differences, confusion, and conflict. The protocol structure provides a known container that is well understood. That elevates psychological safety levels and creates the potential for lots and lots of learning at the level of group.


The culture of any group, organization, community or network seems to be composed of many invisible protocols. Do you have any suggestions for making these protocols more visible or for modifying how we use them?


The book has a chapter called “Pay Explicit Attention”. If you pay explicit attention to protocols, you  notice them everywhere. Consider for example the [Hello] protocol, it goes like this:

Jean: Hi Daniel, how are you?

Daniel: Very good, thank you (for asking), and you?

Jean: I am well, thank you!

Here is a simple, non-business, person-to-person protocol for initiating a conversation face-to-face or on the phone. This is just one example. If we deconstruct what we call “courtesy” and “politeness” we discover these are actually a collection of socially shared protocols.

We routinely reduce the risk of social miscues via simple and commonly accepted protocols. Protocols are everywhere if we start paying attention to them. They are essential for smooth social functioning.

When working inside teams, we want to kick it up a notch, on the hypothesis that groups must intend team learning, or it does not happen. And to make it happen we need to watch our collective behavior, collectively, and pay careful attention to the form and structure of common interactions. The chapters “Pay Explicit Attention” and “Examine What’s Normal” in The Culture Game book provide specific guidance on how to do this. The one caution I have is to “pay attention to elegance.” By this I mean “be minimal.” Keep the list of formal and agreed-upon (protocoled) interactions as small and as simple as possible. People after all are not computers, and formal protocols can feel process-heavy at times. That said, when the stakes are high and listening and getting heard are paramount, interaction protocols are essential. That’s why sovereign nations use protocol in diplomacy. We can borrow that idea for use inside our teams.


Why does creating safety and containment help us work better together?


Containment creates safety and safety creates an “open space” to be honest. That’s exactly the kind of space where innovation can (and will) show up.

In addition, most all people want to reduce their worries, concerns and anxieties about being candid in a group setting. Containment helps tremendously.

Social anxieties are especially acute. Here is some of the typical the self-talk:

  • If I say what I want to say, how will that affect how I am perceived?
  • Does my “stock go down” if I say what I think needs to be stated?
  • Will the others think I am stupid if I say this?
  • What is my current role in this situation?
  • What role does the group want me to play?
  • What role do I want to play? Do I want to follow, lead or simply observe?
  • Which of the available roles for me in this situation has the least amount of risk?

There is an inverse relationship between levels of psychological safety and these kinds of questions and social worries. The higher the level of safety, the more people will be honest with each other and less concerned about the risks of doing so. The best idea can then surface, and real innovation can happen. We know for sure that disruptively innovative ideas are not going to show up in a space where it is unsafe to be candid. Innovation occurs in safe spaces.

The above interview is a compilation of information from The Culture Game and from discussions with Daniel Mezick. Please see The Culture Game and The Open Space Agility Handbook (both available on AMAZON) for more.