Why Ideas Die In the Boardroom.
Groupthink and how it creates dromadaries with unicorn horns—not to mention the Pontiac Aztek.
I rarely get into slugging matches with other bloggers. If opinions are expressed well enough, I’ll consider even the crazier posts like “Trump Is Not An Animal!” I personally think the man’s completely feral, and known to gnaw on women’s hands. Last week, he referred to Obama’s alleged wire-tapping as McCarthyism. McCarthyism is saying things without basis and claiming they’re true. Joe died under the weight of his lies. Trump may die the same way, although he’s pretty happy being feral. He may gnaw on reporters, foreign dignitaries, women and Mike Pence before he’s done.
I only bring this up because I read a post the other day that rankled me — not in a serious way — but since I don’t use “rankled” very often, I decided to respond, since I was feeling a little feral myself or possibly hungry.
A woman named Nina, a CEO, and a good writer, posted an article, talking about today’s technology, it’s usefulness and how the group dynamic, if robust and diversified, will breed a culture of innovation. She also brought up research, showing the importance of women in groups, since they’re far better at “reading verbal and non-verbal clues” than men (no doubt true).
Ideas don’t just come miraculously from those who “have” them.
The “group dynamic” as she pointed out, is where ideas form, and choosing the right people for these groups will result in diverse teams capable of innovative and far-reaching thought. Since I’ve been in think tanks for more years than I care to admit (although I will later on), I can say with some certainty that this isn’t where ideas come from. In fact, it’s often where ideas go to die, which is another form of feralism.
As I mentioned in my response to Nina, meetings today are full of people searching for verbal and non-verbal clues — but not focusing on new ideas. This is no better than someone focusing on their FitBit instead of their breathing or core strength.
“Ideas — true ideas — come from people who HAVE ideas,” I explained, using capitals to show I was rankled or possibly hungry.
Nina was kind enough to get back to me, saying her focus is on creating high performance, diverse teams and doing so consciously and on purpose. “However,” she said, “I am not sure I agree with you on the subject of ideas. Ideas don’t just come miraculously from those who ‘have’ them. Sometimes they emerge precisely because of the diversity, friction and creativity that comes from the group and the context.”
In theory (or meetings) they sound great, but that’s how we got the Pontiac Aztek.
“Nina,” I wrote back, “ideas DO come miraculously from those who ‘have’ them. I’ve been in creative 40 years, and it’s never been the ‘group dynamic’ that created or fostered ideas. As a creative director, I always encouraged people to come to meetings with ideas. Otherwise, it was a lot of people thinking they just needed people around them to be creative.”
I went on to say that “consensus building” creates camels out of greyhounds. In fact, groups have done more to tear apart, water down, or simply destroy good ideas by throwing in their “two cents worth.” Today our airwaves, social media and print are proof that groups don’t create ideas as much as turn them into dromedaries with unicorn horns. In theory (or meetings) they sound great, but that’s how we got the Pontiac Aztek
“Ideas come from people who believe in their ideas,” I said to Nina. “It’s a passion, and I’ve always looked for people ready to fight for something. If you honestly believe ‘ideas don’t just come miraculously from those who have them,’ believe me, Nina, you aren’t getting great ideas.”
Even songs listed as Lennon/McCartney were created individually.
Someone once said “Ideas arrive in the middle of the night.” Keith Richards came up with “Satisfaction” in his sleep. So did Paul McCartney with “Yesterday.” They were both members of legendary groups. But even songs listed as Lennon/McCartney were created individually. Where The Beatles — and George Martin — came in was on the utilization of the idea. Just as groups in general should be good at utilizing ideas.
The trouble begins when groups mistake ideas for utilizing. This was proven back in the eighties with countries like Japan. They were the wonder of modern economies back then, offering employees careers for life and working on the principle of inclusion. Even shop stewards gathered with their people, forming consensus in every part of the operation.
Unfortunately, when the economy turned, as it did in the late eighties, Japanese companies were so busy forming groups, they couldn’t deal with a sustained recession. Presidents and CEOs finally begged for new thinking, even training people to have original thoughts. Only these people couldn’t think outside the group. Needless to say, having the ability to “read vocal and non-vocal clues” made about as much sense as stereos in fishing nets.
The same thing happened in communist countries where individual expression was not only discouraged, many were accused of being intellectual. To this day, steering committees avoid original thinking, lest they find themselves somewhere in Siberia. Russia probably has fewer ideas per capita today than any other country — except North Korea, which has no ideas at all.
The notion that groupthink produces ideas is a will-o’-wisp imitating a “light bulb moment.”
A few years back, one “innovation group” wrote that companies should include “black sheep” in their meetings. “These people will force new ideas and inject creativity,” they said. Some companies did just that, regretting it afterwards. The “groupies” as I like to call them, didn’t like “black sheep” or new ideas and voiced their concerns to management. The “black sheep” were fired and the groupies went back to “consensus building.”
If it’s true that we’re doomed to repeat history if we don’t learn from it, then we might very well be doomed. The notion that “groupthink” produces ideas is a will-o’-wisp imitating a “light bulb moment.” I’m not saying groups aren’t capable of having ideas. But they won’t if the individuals themselves don’t have ideas to begin with.
It’s a myth propagated by “innovation groups,” the ones saying “Ideas don’t just come miraculously from those who ‘have’ them.”
That’s the biggest myth going. Just ask Keith Richards or Paul McCartney (you might be a little late asking Joe McCarthy, though).
Robert Cormack is a freelance copywriter, novelist and blogger. His first novel “You Can Lead a Horse to Water (But You Can’t Make It Scuba Dive)” is available online and at most major bookstores. Check out Yucca Publishing or Skyhorse Press for more details.