Monday, January 16, 2012

Rise of the New Groupthink?

Susan Cain wrote a very provocative article for the New York Times this weekend.  It was titled, "The Rise of the New Groupthink."   Cain explains that, "Most of us now work in teams, in offices without walls, for managers who prize people skills above all. Lone geniuses are out. Collaboration is in."  However, Cain argues that many creative people are quite introverted, and they enjoy working independently and privately.   Some creative individuals thrive as "lone geniuses."   Privacy and solitude makes them productive, while constant interruptions can be very problematic.   Cain cites the work of K. Anders Ericsson, a scholar who has examined how people become world class experts in particular fields through deliberate practice.  Cain concludes from his research that, "The best way to master a field is to work on the task that’s most demanding for you personally. And often the best way to do this is alone."

Cain also argues that teams often do not achieve their potential; they do not outperform the results that could be achieved  by best individual members working alone.  Indeed, much research has shown that teams often experience "process losses" - i.e. 1+1 should equal more than 2, but somehow those synergies often don't materialize in teams.  1+1 might even add up to less than 2 at times.   She points specifically to the process of group brainstorming, whose results often do not meet expectations according to many studies.

Cain acknowledges that many of our toughest technical and scientific problems no longer can be solved by the "lone inventor" working in their garage.  Collaboration has become necessary to make progress on many complex challenges of our time.   However, she argues that we have to strike a balance in the way we organize ourselves in workplaces, schools, and other institutions.  We need to provide the space for collaboration to occur, but not inundate people with meetings.   We have to give people, particularly creative introverts, the opportunity and the venue to work privately and without interruption at times.   At the same time, we want to provide the opportunity for the mixing of ideas to occur and the sharing of knowledge.   It's a delicate balance, but I believe Cain is right in arguing that we must strive to achieve it.

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