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12 Angry Men, 1957

An Architect Doing What Architects Do Best

By Mike Johnson, 4/10/2019

The primary assumption is that folks reading this blog have watched the film, 12 Angry Men. If not, please watch it and, in advance of you providing feedback, you’re very welcome.


Having watched the film recently, my initial thought was that this film should be called, 11 Angry men and 1 Architect?! I can’t recall Juror 8 actually expressing anger at any moment during this remarkable film. However, that’s also true of several of the other members of the jury. My aim is to emphasise the profession of Juror 8 as, when he announced his profession, my eyes opened up with interest, eagerly anticipating to see if he would apply complex problem solving methods, architectural principles and/or holistic thinking to the process of persuading the other jurors to change their stance on the verdict of a criminal case with the most severe of consequences for the defendant.

As verified by a quick Google search, over the past 62 years since the film was released, it’s shown itself to have had a seismic impact on those who have watched it. So what is of value to point out for this short article?! Simply, to highlight a few points that most highly resonated with my own experiences. My closest experiences to the event depicted in the movie are attending engineering design reviews. In an engineering design review, essentially there are approximately 12 people, proverbially locked in a room together, with the aim of making a final judgement on a design based on a variety of evidence. Attendees of Critical Design Reviews (common in the Aerospace and Defence sectors) know all too well how, with so much at stake in the final decision of the meeting, the strengths and flaws of the human condition are put on almost a circus-like display. Of course, most interestingly, all design review attendees will make the claim that they are seeking the truth, much like the 12 Angry Men! This is, fundamentally, what makes reaching consensus across a diverse group of human beings so incredibly fascinating. So here are a few thoughts from the grey matter…

The Systems Thinking Approach of Juror 8:

Juror 8 continuously tries to see the big picture:

  • He doesn’t only consider the evidence in isolation. He compares the consistency of the two witness statements, for instance, by convincingly demonstrating that only one of them can be true, due to the critical dependency relating to the noise of the train.

  • He is continually building a holistic view of the defendant, the evidence presented in court and the perspectives of the other jurors. He works tirelessly to ensure consistency between all of these aspects. Doing this can be incredibly stressful, as his brain needs to maintain the latest version of the single source of truth. No other juror can match his holistic thinking.

Juror 8 applies lateral thinking techniques:

  • In the application of lateral thinking, one doesn’t aim to prove a certain hypothesis to be true. The aim is to freely explore the problem, as then one finds the truth much easier to ascertain(i.e. the truth emerges from an expansive exploration of the problem rather than from pursuing results or specific facts that support a pre-conceived theory). By not committing himself to a specific hypothesis of the defendant’s guilt, whilst accepting that the other jurors may be right, Juror 8 tactfully leaves himself in a position where he can freely explore everyone else’s perspectives.

  • He effectively uses open questions when questioning the other jurors. This is an effective method for making the juror’s justify their positions. Given that certain of the jurors believe the defendant is guilty and, therefore, they are stating that they believe that there is no reasonable doubt that the defendant is indeed guilty, Juror 8 quickly exposes several fundamentals flaws.

  • He analyses the data presented. For example, rather than accepting blindly that one of the witnesses (an elderly man who walks with a limp), within 15 seconds of hearing a loud noise, was able to walk to his door, open it, and look down the stairwell to see the defendant, Juror 8 requests that they decompose this scenario, and resultingly is able to show that the claim by the witness is wildly inaccurate.

Juror 8 is open to listening and considering everyone’s perspectives and does not state that his personal perspective is somehow superior to the others.

  • When it becomes clear that Juror 4 is solely focused on the statement from the prosecution’s witness, instead of appealing to him to think holistically (holism is not something that people can spontaneously adapt to applying in deductive thinking methods) he further explores the evidence from said witness, revealing that only when considering the actual witness statement alongside observations of the witness, in particular her behaviour in court, can the full truth be revealed.

Juror 8 had already thought about “the problem” for longer than his peers.

  • He had taken the time to walk through the area where the defendant lived. He’d seen it with his own eyes, independently. By taking that time to prepare himself, he was able to draw out the other jurors preconceived notions, exposing how the evidence regarding the flick-knife was actually misrepresented in the court.

  • Based on his behavior at the beginning of the film, he appears to be prepared for the other jurors to disagree with him. He’s mentally preparing himself for what’s about to come. Do any of the other 11 have an idea what’s about to occur in the room? Do you strategically prepare yourself for a design review?

  • The above reminds me of the quote by Albert Einstein, “It's not that I'm so smart, it's just that I stay with problems longer”.

Juror 8 applies his greatest efforts towards managing the real underlying complexity of the case.

  • The most complex parts of problems are the people. Right from the kick off we see Juror 8’s respect for this complexity. As a good architect, he doesn’t just address the underlying complexities of the people, he also addresses the relationships between the people. Whether he’s assessing the defendant, the witnesses or the other jurors, he is often quick to identify the cause of behaviours of the people, rather than look solely at the behavior.

  • His strength for identifying the key characteristics of the jurors is summed up when consoling Juror 9 (who is angered at Juror 7 for dismissively walking away from him), Juror 8 states, “He can’t hear you. He never will.” One can save significant time and energy by identifying attributes like this in advance of a critical meeting.

The qualities of Juror 8:

  • He’s humble and is evidently motivated to seek the truth. Surely the best quality for a Systems Engineer / Thinker / Architect. The moment one lacks humility, one can’t consider others people’s views equally with their own.

  • He never loses his temper, or becomes overly emotional. Emotion is a very powerful tool for persuading others, however the truth speaks for itself. My experience so far is to listen to those who speak their truth quietly. This can be very difficult in design reviews, which is why it’s good to speak with people one-to-one during the coffee breaks and or make the opportunity for an alignment prior to the event.

Treat with care those who refer to “the facts”:

Juror 3 states, “Listen, I've got all the facts here!” and later on Juror 10 says, “Look, we're all grown-ups in here. We heard the facts, didn't we?” We find in the latter case an effectively formed sentence that firstly seeks to patronise, then seeks to unify the others around something called “facts”. Notice firstly, Juror 10 doesn’t detail the said facts. If Juror 10 knew of any information that could be considered as factually incriminating to the defendant, then surely he would have stated it, rather than referring to “facts”. Facts, by their very nature, are unquestionable, so Juror 10 tries to make his position unquestionable. What we find out, of course, is that underneath the rhetoric, there is a void filled only with a simply horrible prejudice. This is not always the case, certainly referring to something as a “fact” or “factual” is often used rhetorically to cover up uncertainties where people are keen to avoid scrutiny.

I can imagine that Juror 10 had been successfully applying this method of persuasion in his professional life. If it wasn’t for the Jurors all being considered equal and the requirement for consensus, Juror 10 could well have succeeded. Ultimately the discussion of “facts” is eloquently summed up by Juror 11, “Facts are sometimes coloured by the personalities of the people who present them.” If you’re presenting in a design review, point to the analyses and verification data, don’t get lost in rhetoric! The next time you hear someone in a design review refer to the “facts” about their design being the safest, most reliable, lowest risk solution, remember these words from Juror 3 early on in the film: “You can’t refute facts. This boy is guilty.” Then consider the actions of Juror 3 at the end of the film.

Group behaviour:

Consider if the first vote was a secret ballot, would the result have been 11-1? How many of the Jurors do we see later on in the film having doubts on the guilty verdict or who were originally going with the trend? Following their vote with the majority that the defendant was guilty, those who had doubts about the defendant’s guilt and who may have voted ‘not guilty’ in a private ballot, would need to justify (perhaps just to themselves) why they changed their view. In doing so, they may dig even deeper into holding the guilty verdict, simply to justify their actions and avoid having the limelight on them.

Could secret ballots be useful in design reviews?! It’s worth considering.

Final thought… even if you’ve watched this movie before, why not watch it again with a different perspective?!

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