Wednesday, August 22, 2007

A Flock of Stupid

There may not be an "I" in TEAM, but there is one in PASSION.

In his book Re-imagine!, author Tom Peters said, "We will win this battle... and the larger war... only when our talent pool is both deep and broad. Only when our organizations are chock-a-block with obstreperous people who are determined to bend the rules at every turn..."

James Surowiecki, is the New Yorker columnist who wrote The Wisdom of Crowds. This compelling book is about how groups of people operate compared to individuals. He sets the context by discussing how many animals and insects increase the sophistication of their behavior by acting in groups. The concept here is that sets of simple interactions following straight-forward rules can produce very complex behaviors. This theory applied to birds is known as flocking. For many insects it is called a swarm.
Paradoxically, the best way for a group to be smart is for each person in it to think and act as independently as possible.
-- The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki
After going through the background he then illustrates how all these theories break down when you get to homo sapiens. His premise here is that we present the opposite behavior. Essentially, in contrast to the animal and insect kingdoms, the more interactions that are involved in our behaviors, the less sophisticated and less intelligent the behavior becomes.

All this is not to say that groups cannot be intelligent, it just requires that we aggregate the interactions and don't attempt to reach consolidation or consensus. To put this another way, it means that you should take the average of the individual responses or inputs, don't try and work together to formulate a single answer. He goes into great detail with lots of examples that are very interesting.

He doesn't stop there thought but extrapolates several other ideas as well. For example, if you are aggregating input then you can increase the effectiveness of the group by increasing the diversity of the group.
"Diversity and independence are important because the best collective decisions are the product of disagreement and contest, not consensus or compromise. An intelligent group, especially when confronted with cognition problems, does not ask its members to modify their positions in order to let the group reach a decision everyone can be happy with. Instead, it figures out how to use mechanisms--like market prices, or intelligent voting systems--to aggregate and produce collective judgments that represent not what any one person in the group thinks but rather, in some sense, what they all think."

Leaping forward from this it becomes clear that team thinking can lead only to incremental improvements, because it will prevent revolutionary ideas, those thoughts which are by definition outside the group norm.

If you want to create a formidable team then you must acknowledge that the mission of the team is to create a supportive environment for a collection of individuals. Team members must have their own unique voices and perspectives. The team is empowered to encourage the individuals to pursue their own ideas, not to force consensus and keep everything warm and fuzzy.

The saying that "None of us is as good as all of us" is crap. My biggest reward from people I mentor is when I hear them say that not only are they as good as their group but they are actually better at specific thing X or Y. Only then will I know they have the confidence and will to head the lemmings off at the pass when they're all heading off a cliff.

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