The Problem With Groups?

Wow, two news articles in one week about how creativity and vision can be blocked by the will of the majority.

First, the technoscenti buzzed with the word that Google’s lead designer, Doug Bowman, has left the company.  On his blog, Bowman explained that the numbers-driven culture of Google made it impossible to do good design.  The famous stories are true, Bowman says: For example, that a team at Google couldn’t decide which shade of blue to use, so they made 41 different versions of their web site, each with a slightly different shade of blue, and they’re waiting to see which shade the users like best.  Another example: Bowman had a debate about whether a thin line should be 3, 4, or 5 pixels wide.  Instead of accepting his design decision, he was challenged to provide data to prove which thickness was the best.

Second, the Washington Post published a front-page essay by Hank Stuever arguing that movie producers depend too much on the fans to help them make key creative decisions.  Today’s Exhibit A is the new Star Trek: a film with a die-hard fan base, and they’ll be watching every frame to make sure that the movie conforms to their insider wisdom about what is and is not true to the spirit of Star Trek.  Stuever believes this has real potential to interfere with creative decision making: “Quibblers would have kept Star Trek more like its old self. Quibblers inhibit revolution.”  What happens is that “Quibbling produces a Watchmen movie, which tenderly reproduced the 1988 graphic novel panel-for-panel and still failed–pleasing fans, perhaps, but excluding newcomers.”

Stuever acknowledges that the “collective force of fans” might actually improve the result (although he seems skeptical).  And at Google, it might actually be the case that the users do a better job of selecting just the right shade of blue than a designer.  How to know?  Google’s engineer-dominated culture wants to see the numbers, the proof.  Artists and designers don’t think that way–they know a design that works in their gut, somehow, when they see it.  It’s a holistic phenomenon, and it emerges in some unpredictable way from hundreds of tiny design decisions about line widths and color shades.  How, they would ask, could you possibly test every single combination, every possible design?  Bowman writes “I’ve grown tired of debating such minuscule design decisions.” Numbers get you focused on the trees and you forget you’re inside of a forest.

The challenge of innovation is always this tension between individual creative vision, and the collective genius of the group.  Neither path alone is assured of success; even a brilliant designer sometimes gets it wrong, and groups are often, famously, stupid.  When everything clicks, the tension is productive; it actually drives both individuals and groups to perform better.

9 thoughts on “The Problem With Groups?

  1. In your own terms, Bowman is just bringing his repertoire of design licks and riffs to bear on the problem. That kind of design by committee/decision paralysis thing drives me up the wall, for collaboration to be successful, you have to be prepared to accept one another’s expertise and trust them to do the best job they can.

    (PS I am just starting out on a PhD on how social media can support creativity and innovation – I am finding your work hugely inspirational – Cheers Andy)

  2. This is the part I struggle with Keith. That most things that are worth a darn were thought up by six or less people. at the very tippy-top of that list are things which predominately are the work of sole inventors.

    So… to pose the question, where does “group genius” become design by committee?

    1. When does group genius become design by committee? Answering that is the Holy Grail of research in group creativity! I’ve proposed many answers in my book GROUP GENIUS but for now, I’ll just list a few traits of creative groups:

      * strong trust and deep listening

      * autonomy and ability to act

      * members are connected broadly OUTSIDE the group

      * not afraid to disagree; lots of respectful argumentation

  3. >>When does group genius become design by committee?

    Well that is to do with the composition of the group and the ideas they bring to bear on a problem rather than number.

    If people are trying to influence an idea but are not bringing any directly relevant expertise or insight or information to it, then their influence will be political and you will have design by committee.

    1. Absolutely! Successful creative groups have cognitive diversity, meaning each member brings a different perspective and a different body of relevant knowledge to the task.

      However, it can sometimes be a good idea to bring someone in who doesn’t have any obviously relevant expertise. They can provide a different viewpoint that can help a group to avoid groupthink. But that can only work in an organization with a strong culture of trust, openness, and sharing.

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