On Friday afternoon April 6, 2012, Humantific CoFounder, GK VanPatter posted the response below to the NextDesign Leadership Network discussion group on LinkedIn in reference to a question about Jonah Lehrer’s GroupThink article, that appeared in the January 2012 edition of the New Yorker.
Hi Robert: Regarding your question:
“What do folks think of this [Jonah Lehrer’s GroupThink article] ?”
From a consulting practice perspective, I would say that Lehrer’s GroupThink article and several others like it with forceful anti-teamwork themes have spawned a rather complicated marketplace mess. In seeing the aftermath I was reminded of the balloon boy story that appeared in the US media a few years ago that consumed huge amounts of energy and then upon closer examination led no-where.
With such a hunger out there for posting material that drives eyeballs to web sites it seems to matter more if the content is provocative and less if it makes any real sense. Determining whether something is valid or not can consume significant amounts of time, as the argument devices now in play include the citing of “research” papers x 10. Many readers would rather not take the time to sort through such complex mazes. It seems that anything with more than five “research” references is bound to be reposted endlessly without too many questions being asked. Perhaps a new term can be created for stuff that gets posted online, drives a lot of attention without much insightful analysis, and then leads to no-where-land or worse, backwards ten years.
The subject and working terrain of enabling integrative innovation in organizations is unquestionably a moving frontier, forever in motion. One can access that terrain from many different angles and time periods, from where it was ten or fifty years ago to where it’s many faces are today. Anyone can construct an argument with the leading edges, the middle or the tail end. It is relatively easy to construct arguments against where the frontier was decades ago and then spin that depiction as if that is where the frontier is today. Doing so is never particularly beneficial to anyone, except perhaps the creators of such time-warp arguments.
There seems to be two primary GroupThink articles floating around; one by Susan Cain published January 13, 2012 and the other that you referenced by Jonah Lehrer published January 30, 2012. It is no secret that they have already consumed a ton of time in the marketplace, spent by many trying to decipher if that fire is valid and what the heck it might mean.
If it is helpful to anyone in this discussion group, I can tell you that we have not seen anything in those two articles or the bandwagon stream following them that would inspire us to change the directions of what we do in the realm of enabling cross-disciplinary cocreation and building integrative thinking capacity.
Some of the later articles appearing in “Fast Company” like the recent one, showing boxing gloves, suggesting that innovation is “now” all about arguing have been just plain entertaining. Argument has been the default dynamic in western culture for hundreds of years so not much of a change prescription there. If you are seeking to increase the cat-fight dynamics in your organization you will certainly know where to find help for that, thanks to “Fast Company”..:-)
Of the two central GroupThink articles I would say by far the most relevant is the writing that Susan Cain has been doing on the subject of how to better utilize the brainpower of introverts from the perspective of introverts. Susan seems to be from a lawyering background so not sure how much time she has spent in generative multidisciplinary environments. Her book entitled Quiet, which I just finished reading, is much more useful than the article, as it explains her point of view in more detail.
In general I would say there is a rather frustrated, unsung perspective calling out there, especially in Quiet, that deserves to be voiced and better understood in organizational contexts.
Unfortunately Cain’s article and book are clouded by numerous over-the-top hyperbolic suggestions such as: “Remember the dangers of the New GroupThink.” and “If it’s creativity you’re after ask your employees to solve problems alone before sharing their ideas”.
In Cain’s article and book there are numerous mind-bending leaps of logic, from notions of being unhappy as a child at summer camp to condemnation of teamwork, problem solving, and collaboration, based on selective interpretation of some odd-ball brainstorming research all bundled together and labeled that nasty GroupThink thing. Much of that logic stream is just plain nonsense, but certainly everyone is entitled to their point of view and approach to marketing.
Susan seems to be arriving on the enabling innovation scene from “the Hudson River Valley” with a single two-dimensional lens that encompasses introvert/extrovert. It seems likely that she is not aware that those already in the integrative thinking enabling business have many additional tools, encompassing numerous additional dimensions of consideration in the construction of diversity. Some of us decided years ago not to explicitly focus on the personality dimensions of Myers Briggs, for a multitude of reasons that I will not go into here in this abbreviated post.
What’s a little comical is that both Lehrer and Cain seem to think that what others are doing in the realm of innovation enabling in 2012 amounts to handing out the 1948 instructions to brainstorming…:-) That’s all there is to it so we can all go home! Such assumptions are not great signals regarding the depth of their own knowledge.
Is anyone you know out in the marketplace advocating the elimination of alone work? No one that we know of is. This is one of numerous tempest-in-a-tea pot, paper tiger constructions that appear in both GroupThink articles. Ho hum.
Clearly these two articles are blunt force instruments, not in any way shy about what they are aggressively throwing on the table, or what might get blown up in the process. A basic that Cain does not seem to get is that most working adults already know how to work by themselves, what most seek help with right now, what most missed in most forms of even advanced education, is how to work with other tribes in the context of wicked problems. Whether everyone likes it or not, much that goes on in the context of wicked challenges needs to be socially constructed.
It’s not just about idea generation. Its more about how stuff gets done. How stuff gets done is often about participation, co-framing, buy-in and various social constructions. Quite apart from the personal attributes of introverts, these are realities in the arena of wicked problems today.
While Susan is busy making a case for a fraction of the Myers Briggs model, she is also busily and I would say needlessly, some might say carelessly, blowing up applied creativity teamwork, the present state of which she seems to know very little about. That lack of knowing undermines her relatively simple message that introverts are all around us (I am one myself) and deserve to be better understood.
Susan’s writing tends to work best as anthropological expression of tribal introvert preferences and less well when it comes to offering up advice for enabling creativity and tackling complexity in organizational contexts. On that front I would say she is herself just entering the front door of the learning curve.
For the folks in this business there is nothing new in what Susan Cain eventually gets around to suggesting; consideration of physical environments, realization that some prefer alone work, individual candy bars, etc., but to her target audience Cain’s thesis is probably sounding rather useful. Apart from the hyperbolics the introvert point of view is, in organizations, often present but not listened to or just plain missing.
On the Integrative Thinking SoWhat Index I would say the picture of these two articles looks something like this with 10 being highest best score and 0 being lowest score.
GroupThink by Jonah Lehrer
Industry Relevance: 2
New Perspective: 2
Unsung Perspective: 0
Research Relevance: 0
GroupThink by Susan Cain
Industry Relevance: 6
New Perspective: 3
Unsung Perspective: 9
Research Relevance: 2
These two articles contain many differences, but manage to make the same errors at a foundational research level in attempting to offer up what they energetically frame as new perspectives on problems and solution paths. We have been surprised that our colleagues from the design research community have raised so few questions in this regard.
Let’s try a simple bicycle analogy:
Let’s acknowledge that when one is learning how to ride a bicycle it can be awkward and sometimes might even seem hopeless in level 1.
From a research perspective one could conceivably:
- conduct an observational study of level 1 bike riding behaviors and then claim that to be what bike riding is right now.
- study bike riding from sixty years ago and them claim that to be what bike riding is today.
- read sixty year old level 1 bike riding instructions in a book and then claim that to be what bike riding currently consists of.
- hand out sixty year old level 1 bike riding instructions to fifteen people, ask them to get on a bike for the first time, observe what happens and then call that bike riding in 2012.
The possible avenues for odd-ball sillybilly research approaches seem endless.
To build on that sillybilly logic, if you were a creative writer you could no doubt find some current “research” to cite that utilized written instructions from sixty years ago, assuming that was bike riding.
Alternatively to those approaches, one could apply a little common sense and appreciate that at level 10, the view of bike riding might look considerably different. One might take into account time considerations, that bike riding in 2012 would probably be different from the bike riding that took place fifty or sixty years ago. The bike might be different, the riding interface might be different, etc.
Of course the notion that multiple states of bicycle riding do exist has been known for decades. Also known by many organizational leaders today is that similar skill progressions apply to most aspects of teamwork and or cocreation. Have you ever heard of Forming, Storming, Norming, and Performing? Evidently not everyone writing about teamwork, brainstorming and collaboration has.
Suffice it to say that in the “media” today one can see a lot of commentaries regarding teamwork, brainstorming, collaboration, problem solving, creativity, that seem to be derived from “research” based on what appears to have been the equivalent to cursory reading of sixty year old level 1 bike riding instructions. Misconstruing the study of level 1 bike riding disastors for the study of bike riding is a phenomenon that can be seen in the vast majority of the academic research that has ever been conducted on the subject of “brainstorming”. Why that is occurring is an entire subject unto itself. Are such studies manipulative, riddled with distortions or just plain unenlightened?
Whether everyone likes it or not, the notion of a skills progression ladder is always going to apply regardless of whether it is an individual or collective interface that must be mastered. Most of the organizational leaders that we work with are well aware that cocreation events involve individual and collective interface mastery.
If your goal is to create an organization of level 1 bicycle riders then you should pay a lot of attention to the academic research that has knowingly or unknowingly been focused in that direction. If your organization seeks to build level 10 riders, that academic research is essentially irrelevant. What’s your guess: Do folks on route to becoming “Jedi Masters” of bike riding get off the bicycle at level 1? We don’t think so.
It is safe to say that if the two GroupThink authors, Susan Cain and Jonah Lehrer were a little more knowledgeable regarding the current evolution of the integrative thinking frontier, instead of creating “straw-man” arguments against where the frontier was sixty years ago, these articles might have been focused quite differently. But then again all that eye-ball directing drama would have been missed…:-)
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