Groupthink

millipedeBruce, a good friend of mine in the time before the espresso when coffee trickled through a filter into a Pyrex jug, said as he poured the cremora free liquid into my mug, “There is no such thing as a new idea. They are all recycled.”

We were discussing evolutionary biology at the time. Probably some nuance of the idea free distribution as applied to Oystercatchers or maybe the reasons for the bizarre ornamentation of millipede genitalia, I don’t remember exactly. As young academics in the biology department at the University of Botswana, it was a normal enough conversation now long forgotten.

But I have always remembered that phrase, “no such thing as a new idea”. It was burned instantly onto my core because it hurt.

My ego could not accept such a crazy concept. It still can’t. I believed then and now that ideas come from the endless bounty of the ether. All you have to do is open a portal and they flow faster than filter coffee.

What happens next is where Bruce was coming from, for the ideas may well be recycled many times but the ego adopts them and presents them to the world as its own unique and original thought.

Now suppose that we put 40 sizable egos into a room for a day and get them to think about a problem. They are all technical experts who know a fair bit about the topic. We call this a workshop and it’s portals away.

Open the floor for discussion and soon there is a flood of ideas. By coffee time everyone is ankle-deep in them. Only all of these ideas conform to Bruce’s definition, none of them are new.

As each ego finds out something new it presents it back to the group as a great idea. And it is, except that other egos have already had that idea and moved on.

In the group though these old ideas keep coming and etiquette requires that these ideas are heard. So people listen politely but impatiently while they think up more ideas of their own. Ideas appear, bounce around and die, all the time taking up space that solutions should occupy.

Keep this up for a day and you can go insane.

Welcome to ‘groupthink’, the politically correct and increasingly popular way to tackle complex problem — put a bunch of “experts” in a room and let them regurgitate old ideas.

It is easy to see how groupthink has come about. We all tend to believe that no one person can have all the answers. There is simply too much information these days for one brain to be across it all, let alone have the skills and bandwidth to synthesize, analyze and interpret what it means.

A gathering of many brains each familiar with the topic should solve this problem performing a kind of risk management. Collectively this intellectual capacity should better cover all the bases.

The problem is those egos that refuse to accept that their ideas are old. What actually happens in workshops is reinvention of the wheel many times over as each participant gets up to speed and the groupthink gets mired in what amounts to getting up to speed. Progress becomes difficult.

When it gets bad things go backwards. Genuinely new ideas fail to make it at all.

Perhaps we should rethink the workshop.

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