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Avoiding Collective Stupidity

Posted by Bob Warfield on September 4, 2008

I enjoyed Bruce Eckel’s post on “collective stupidity” in his Artima blog.  He asks how organizations filled with smart people can be collectively stupid, and gives Microsoft and its inability to innovate as an example.

There are whole books written on the difficulties of innovating in large organizations, but I see a couple of patterns from time to time that I thought I’d riff on.  First, lest we forget, smart does not guarantee success.  It is a useful tool along the way, but I’m in the camp that wishes it were lucky rather than smart.

With that said, consider that reporting is very skewed.  A small organization full of smart people that fails tends to just vanish pretty quickly and with minimal news about exactly what happened.  As a result, there is often low stigma associated with failure in a small organization, at least in regions like Silicon Valley that are startup and entrepreneur friendly.   It is small organizations that become wildly successful that are most carefully documented and most widely known.  Two Stanford kids start Google and it’s the stuff of Legend.

But, collectively, many small companies have a portfolio effect working in their favor.  If we largely only hear about and remember the successes and seldom the failures, we may get a skewed perspective on whether the small organizations can fall prey to some of the same (or worse) problems that befall Big Co.’s.

Another thought that weighs on my mind are the many kinds of smart and their interaction with one another.  Students of Myers Briggs and other personality profiling tools understand that there are many learning styles with greater and lesser degrees of compatibility with one another.  Too many incompatible styles, and they just fight with each other (due to lack of ability to communicate in many cases) rather than getting the job done.  Pity the fact-based logical thinker who has to get his point across to the intuitive-leap-of-faith thinker, yet both might be equally brilliant.

Most importantly, consider what kinds of “smart” different organizational environments self-select for as ecosystems.  Large organizatins can emphasize political smart more than entrepreneurial smart.  They have well-developed (and oft discussed) antibodies that favor staying on course.  After all, that course is what made the organization big, right?  The trouble happens when it’s time to change that course.

This brings me to a last critical point.  If you believe in the idea of antibodies attacking change, it is very important to carefully define what it is your organization does to be successful in such a way that the important things to keep changeable are outside that circle and so immune from the antibodies.  If what you do to be successful is to execute the CEO’s micromanaged vision of what should be done without argument or doubt, obviously that will be hard to ever change without encountering serious antibodies!

When innovation is important to embrace, the ideal is to create a portfolio effect within the organization.  Organizations that think what they do to succeed is incubate new ventures internally will likely be good at that, and the new ventures can bring change.  Unfortunately, it is very hard to have that vision of what’s good if you’re required to grow from a VC-backed startup to that stage.  It simply requires different skills to get from one to the other.  Perhaps this is where Microsoft fell into a pot hole.

I am reminded of a conversation I had ages ago with executives from Toshiba.  They were meeting us to discuss a partnership, and I asked them what they thought the differences were in competitive strategy in Japan versus America.  Their answer was intriguing.  In their view, Japan kept everything inside individual large companies with just a little Kieretsu-style cooperation.  People worked cradle to grave for the same employer, and often on the same projects.  The executives wistfully described their view of Silicon Valley as being like the ultimate single company.  Whichever startup they would slay, ten others would spring up in its place each one armed with the knowledge of how the former had failed and each one a more formidable adversary.

Difficult to keep slaying those dragons as they get smarter and smarter each time.

2 Responses to “Avoiding Collective Stupidity”

  1. 79sparrows said

    “Group think” is an interesting concept…
    I remember learning this from a very brilliant communications teacher of mine in college.

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