Collaboration Or “Groupthink? Striking The Right Balance

By Jeff Hirsch

I was not pleased when I read the headline on the front page of the Sunday Review section of the New York Times this week, The Rise Of The New Groupthink, by Susan Cain.

Being a champion of co-creation and collaboration in the marketing process, the Orwellian headline alone set me off, as did the opening assertion that, “research strongly suggests that people are more creative when they enjoy privacy and freedom from interruption.”

Ridiculous. That might be true for many individuals but it is far from a universal truth.  In fact, the author goes on to acknowledge the ambiguous nature of creativity, citing Steve Wozniak’s solitary, lonely development of the first personal computer. True, he worked away alone, shut inside his garage late at night, but the inspiration might not have been possible at all if not for his “simpatico band of engineers that call(ed) themselves the Homebrew Computer Club.”

I completely agree with the Cain’s assertions that “privacy…makes us productive” and “solitude can even help us learn.”  My best work is nearly always produced in quiet, focused, otherworldly, self-absorbed moments.  Interestingly enough, these can occur with crowds of people, noise and all kinds of activity swirling all around me, on an airplane or in a coffee house, where I am writing at this very moment.

Yet these are still private moments. I’m anonymous here at Peet’s Coffee, in my own world, not bothered by anyone. Conversely, there’s nothing private about an open office plan, where the absence of boundaries is an open invitation for interruption.  I was cynical about these layouts from the start, thinking them to be money-saving schemes disguised as productivity enhancers.

But stating that, “brainstorming sessions are one of the worst possible ways to stimulate creativity” is just wrong, especially in a corporate setting.  True, design by committee can water down or kill great ideas.  But if you’re not Steve Jobs or Howard Schultz, i.e., the other 99.9%+ of the business world, collaboration is essential to get anything done.

None of us (Jobs & Schultz being exceptions) should ever be so arrogant to believe that our ideas cannot be improved by others. In my experience, ideas grow stronger when explored from multiple, distinctive, cross-functional perspectives.

More importantly, unless you are the CEO, and sometimes even if you are, it is difficult or impossible to impose your will on a huge organization. Machiavelli said as much in “The Prince” when he talked about the need to be backed by an army if you really wanted to innovate. In that sense, not much has changed since the Renaissance. While we nearly always cite innovation as a critical organizational goal, the reality is often that what we really crave is the comfort of the familiar.

For some time now, I have believed that as difficult as it is to sell an idea to the end consumer, it’s even harder to sell that idea through a large, complex, sprawling organization where political agendas are always lurking. Key cross-functional participants must be brought to the table early on in the process to encourage them to be champions, not naysayers of projects as they move along. It is essential that project leaders listen to them with open minds in fact and perception.

We must be careful not to confuse brainstorming and other collaborative, inclusive activities with “groupthink.”  True collaboration and independent thinking are not mutually exclusive.  Both need to be encouraged in any organization, and it is up to top management to set the tone and find the right balance without stifling creativity.

Cain gets it right at the conclusion of her New York Times piece:

“But even if the problems are different, human nature remains the same. And most humans have two contradictory impulses: we love and need one another, yet we crave privacy and autonomy.

“To harness the energy that fuels both these drives, we need to move beyond the New Groupthink and embrace a more nuanced approach to creativity and learning. Our offices should encourage casual, cafe-style interactions, but allow people to disappear into personalized, private spaces when they want to be alone.”












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