Extraordinary Collaboration Delusions and the Madness of Crowds

Image: E.M. Ward, "The South Sea Bubble" (1846) Tate Gallery UKDavid Freeman, who has positive views about disordered individual work practices in his book 'A Perfect Mess', wrote an interesting piece I refer back to a lot in Inc magazine September '06 'What's Next: The Idiocy of Crowds'....
Written by Oliver Marks, Contributor

South Sea Bubble Deal Makers Image: E.M. Ward, "The South Sea Bubble" (1846) Tate Gallery UK

David Freeman, who has positive views about disordered individual work practices in his book 'A Perfect Mess', wrote an interesting piece I refer back to a lot in Inc magazine September '06 'What's Next: The Idiocy of Crowds'.

...The effectiveness of groups, teamwork, collaboration, and consensus is largely a myth. In many cases, individuals do much better on their own. Our bias toward groups is counterproductive. And the technology of ubiquitous connectedness is making the problem worse.

I was reminded of David's article by another great mind today - Paul Farrell at Marketwatch, who mentioned Charles Mackay's 1841 South Sea Bubble book, "Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds" when writing about the putative financial recovery currently being discussed.

Dateline: 1720. Breaking news. One day, at the peak of its speculative frenzy, as the "South Sea Bubble" swept through Europe faster than the plague, an "unknown adventurer" in Britain ran this advertisement: "A company for carrying on an undertaking of great advantage, but nobody to know what it is."....

...That crafty 1720 ancestor of today's Wall Street investment bankers and Bernie Madoffs devised what we'd call an "IPO:" He "opened his office to crowds of investors at 9 a.m. the next morning ... closed at 3 p.m. after taking in a fortune ... then left that evening for the Continent ... never to be heard from again."

As is so often the case with IT projects, installing and integrating tools is not the same thing as having a plan for how to use them: buying and setting up is the easy part, utility and uptake the critical factors, and it's easy to miss the obvious problems forming by your actions. Your plan may be flawed and allow unintended consequences, however enthusiastic and bullish you are. Since David Freeman's '06 article the collaboration world has really gathered momentum and some of the vendors are talking up large numbers for the last quarter, but conformity through groupthink is an increasing problem in many installed environments.

This isn't directly caused by these sophisticated new tools of course, any more than a telephone causes gossip, and can be merely old practises like sucking up to leadership, just in a new medium.

There can be a real danger of confusing innovation with workflow, two very different things. There are some very sophisticated tools for capturing innovation that work equally well for groups or individuals. Capturing existing knowledge for contextual use by the broader group in their work is enormously helpful in helping inform staff during their workflows. There is some overlap between these two functions but lack of differentiation can cause major efficiency problems and confusion.

The South Sea Bubble 'unknown adventure' style project is an extremely unwise thing to embark on or invest in, whether using sail boats or collaboration systems. There are protagonists promoting this type of approach for corporate projects, with big tent crowd sourcing and rolling debates.

These types of projects can become a moving feast, with strong minds and alliances overpowering calmer minds. As an alternative, I've counselled clients on visualizing getting all the staff they want to work within an online collaboration space in a single imaginary physical space. Who sits where and what can they see? How should they interact? Who sets the goals and how are they communicated? When should they be in big meetings, working individually or in groups? What is the role of managers and how do they execute actions?

Without this type of strategic and tactical thinking these very powerful tools can become an added layer of complexity in business and cause as many problems as they solve. Groupthink leading to a wild west of wikis and shared drives are a major headache to sort out and diminish the enthusiasm for and effectiveness of future more well thought out collaboration initiatives.

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