Saturday, January 9, 2016

Groupthink and Creativity in Community

I recently received this comment about my blog of Jan 3, Working in the We Hours:

Nice. Still though, there is research that says, people are not the most creative in groups (as in brainstorming). But rather when they have a chance to (also) brainstorm privately. I would love to know your views on that, and on groupthink more specifically. I find that close communities, whether traditional or ICs, for all their virtues, promote groupthink via peer pressure. The ol' "I have to live with these people, so I better not be honest." 

This is a good topic. Cooperative culture is not about producing and maintaining a mind meld. Nonetheless, you do want people to exercise appropriate discipline, by which I mean:

o  Speaking on topic
o  Avoiding repetition
o  Keeping an open mind (especially when someone says something surprising or a odds with your views)
o  Looking for ways to connect ideas, rather than pitting them against each other

There is an important difference between not rocking the boat (going along to get along) and having a positive attitude about finding a mutually agreeable path forward.

In my experience, the key element is the way the group handles the Discussion and Proposal phases when wrangling with an issue. [For more detail about these phases, see Consensus from Soup to Nuts.]

1. First of all it's important that the group treats them as separate phases, to be completed in sequence. That's both because you want different energy for the two phases, and because you need the output of Discussion phase to know what screens to use for assessing proposals.

2. In Discussion phase you're trying to identify the factors that a good response to the issue needs to take into account—setting the table, as it were, for the problem solving that will come next. By keeping proposal generating assiduously separate from factor identification, it protects the group from short circuiting that can occur when by dancing back and forth between the two. If someone mentions a potential factor in brainstorm mode and it's immediately followed by a statement undercutting the suggestion, or by riffing on how to address it, that either dampens creativity or diffuses energy—neither of which is a good thing.

For brainstorms to work well they need to be free flowing and unevaluated until after all the input has been gathered. Critical comments midstream inhibit the flow, which directly relates to the question about the susceptibility of intentional communities to groupthink. The way to avoid a gravitational pull toward conformity (groupthink) is the adequate care and feeding of differences: are they welcomed, or attacked? 

In a voting environment ideas have to survive in a shark tank, where the operant rule is survival of the fittest. The potential of cooperative culture is not realized unless it is robust enough to make it safe for members to express dissent. To be clear, members should always be thinking about what's best for the group, but that should not produce lock-step thinking, or deferral to what the leaders say.

Here are other thoughts about ways communities can be on guard against groupthink:

3. If whole group brainstorming doesn't work for some members of the group, you can mix it up by doing it first in small groups and then aggregating the results in the whole circle (sure there will be a lot of overlap, but you will have protected some aspects of creativity). Alternately, you could give everyone a sheet of paper and 10 minutes to silently brainstorm before the ideas are collected. The value in not doing either of these things is the potential for one person's answer to creatively trigger an inspiration in another. This kind of synergy is sharply curtailed (or even lost) if brainstorms are always done in small groups or alone.

Sometimes you have to be creative about formats in order to protect creative input.
4. All of this said, it's true that there can be pressure to conform in intentional communities (this would all go a lot easier if you'd just go with the flow). I think this comes from arrested development of the group's culture. In particular, being stuck in what Scott Peck styled "false community," the first of four stages:

false community
true community

In false community, members act nice with one another before a solid basis for connection has been established (fake it til you make it). Dissent is suppressed, and expressing disagreement is seen as a social faux pas. There is the veneer of unity, but it's brittle and shallow. In true community it's OK to disagree, because there is sufficient social fabric for the group to hold dissent without tearing the group apart.

Seen through this lens, communities that are stuck in the first stage may indeed be susceptible to groupthink, but that shouldn't be the case in groups that have reached stage four, where the closing quote from my reader gets turned on its head:

I have to live with these people, so I better be honest.

1 comment:

Jeremy Lu said...

Hi Laird,

I've just read your article with interest. Great insight and completely agree that sometimes it's really important to have an individual process first. On top of the paper version which might take some time to collate, there are also tools like GroupMap which allows for individual brainwriting and brainstorming styles - and then automatically collates all the information for further discussion.

There's also some interesting points which support your argument here

I'd be really keen to see what you think of e-brainstorming and if you would like to know more?

All the best.