Have you read David Freedman’s recent piece in Inc. Magazine’s September 2006 edition? You should. It’s been doing the rounds in some of the microconversations I participate in, and I’m glad it came across my radar screen.
Freedman headlines his article What’s Next: The Idiocy of Crowds. OK, that got my attention.
He then starts the article with:
Collaboration is the hottest buzzword in business today. Too bad it doesn’t work.
Now I wasn’t just attentive. I was committed. Very intrigued. Very very intrigued.
Here’s some more quotes to intrigue you:
- As James Surowiecki nicely puts it in the title of his best-selling book, it’s “the wisdom of crowds,” and it’s a glorious thing. Or it would be, if it weren’t for just one little problem: The effectiveness of groups, teamwork, collaboration, and consensus is largely a myth. In many cases, individuals do much better on their own. Our bias toward groups is counterproductive. And the technology of ubiquitous connectedness is making the problem worse.
- What he glosses over, however, is the often spectacular way groups fail in the context of organizations.
- Things only get worse when a team is charged with actually making a decision.
- What’s more, these electronic group decisions can be even more brain-dead than in-person meetings. The biggest problem: the fear of dissenting is magnified in a Web, e-mail, or instant messaging exchange, because participants know their comments can be saved and widely distributed. Instead of briefly offending six people at a meeting, you have the chance to enrage thousands.
- According to a recent article in The Guardian, every three seconds a Wikipedia page is rendered inaccurate–or more inaccurate than it was to begin with–by a hoaxer, ignoramus, or malcontent.
By the time I finished reading through the article, I wasn’t intrigued any more. And not incensed either. More like apathetic. So why do I post this? The usual reason. This kind of thinking will gain currency, especially when amplified by traditional media, unless people like us push back.
Freedman manages to take a swipe at collaboration and teamwork, at social software, at democratised innovation, the whole nine yards. Where he does give praise, it has the feeling of being faint and damning.
So here’s my take on Freedman’s piece:
1. Deciding isn’t doing
There was a book written many years called Five Frogs on a Log which first described this analogy to me. Five frogs, sitting on a log. Four decide to jump off. How many are left? Five, because deciding isn’t doing :-)
We should not confuse group decision making with groups working. Collaboration and consensus are two entirely different things.
2. Consensus comes in many forms
- Simple Voting, with an agreement that the vote is binding on the group, no chads anywhere
- Weighted Voting, same as Simple except that the boss is always right
- Soft consensus, agreement amongst all those who cared or bothered to turn up
- Filibuster consensus, agreement from all present in response to being bored out of their wits
- Real consensus, where group members are given the opportunity to voice their concerns and misgivings in private, prior to a group decision that all will support in public
3. Real consensus is made far more possible by the use of social software
Patrick Lencioni, in his “fable” The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, makes the point far better than I could; all I am doing is placing the argument in the context of social software:
- Unless there is trust within a team people are unwilling to be open
- Unless people are open they won’t express their doubts and misgivings
- Unless they express their doubts and misgivings they won’t feel they were party to the decision
- Unless they feel party to the decision they won’t commit to it
- Unless they commit to it execution is all but impossible
Read the original; my summary doesn’t do it justice. Lencioni’s arguments are very useful in the context of social software. Here’s an offbeat reason why:
In the past, firms had relatively low attrition. Job mobility was low, and gold watches and carriage clocks abounded. In such circumstances, consensus really worked. People voiced their misgivings openly, then went with the majority view after debate. Why? Because they knew that their peers and bosses would remember their sacrifice and their commitment to the team. Institutional memory.
Now, as we live with far higher attrition and job mobility, the institution has no memory any more. Sacrifices are not worth anything, people move, bosses move, there’s an I’m All Right Jack Every Man For Himself culture. Consensus is therefore hard to achieve, and infinite loops of decision-making and second-guessing and third-guessing abound.
In addition to the institutional memory problem (which is primarily about sacrifice) there is also a time-and-space problem. The infinite loop mentioned above is now able to move to new levels of infinity a la Cantor. People are often travelling and in different timezones.
Social software can be used to solve all this. It captures the context, helping absentees “get up to speed”. It captures the conversation, allowing concerns and issues to be aired and recorded. Institutional memory is therefore preserved regardless of attrition. It solves the space and time problems, along with more modern “unproductivity tool” problems such as Which Version Are You Looking At? and I Can’t See That On My BlackBerry and “Sorry, my signal is fading and I have to sign off”.
So Mr Freedman:
- Deciding isn’t doing.
- Consensus comes in many forms.
- Social software aids consensus.