The Perils of GroupThink

Let us compare individual thinking with group thinking. Our civilization has learned that group thinking is more reliable than individual thinking. For example, in politics, we have learned the technology of consensus. I think that it’s safe to say that America holds a huge lead over the rest of the world in this political technology. What with all the citizen’s advisory groups, neighborhood councils, elections at umpteen different levels of government, and all the other bewildering paraphernalia of our governmental system, we have really learned the power of collective decision-making.

We have extended the concept into areas outside of politics. American management has developed a sensitivity to the values of consensus. A manager no longer barks orders; the task now is to induce the workers to buy into a decision. The realization is that intelligent workers dealing with complex issues must understand and support a policy in order to implement it well.

In the entertainment software industry, this process has yielded collective design. Everybody gets into the act, chipping in bits and pieces of ideas. The design process becomes a political one, in which Joe’s idea must be integrated into the design because Joe feels strongly about it. If enough heads nod, the idea goes in.

This is stupid. Design is one of the few areas in which collective thinking has no net superiority over individual thinking. A committee can do many things better than an individual, but designing entertainment software is not one of those things.

The fundamental weakness of collective thinking is its lack of coherence. Collective thinking spawns a great many ideas running off in different directions. What’s good about this is the broad selection of ideas this makes possible. But group thinking brings with it the presumption of inclusion. If you get a bunch of people together to brainstorm, there’s an implicit contract that you intend to use their ideas. You accept a responsibility to integrate as many of their suggestions as possible into the overall plan.

Thus, the greatest strength of collective thinking its heterogeneity of ideas is also its greatest weakness its lack of coherence. Heterogeneity and incoherence are two sides of the same coin. You don’t get one without the other.

Now, we can live with a certain amount of incoherence in many of the decisions we make. Lawmaking, for example, often yields humorously incoherent results. This is one of the consequences of the consensus-oriented approach in our lawmaking bodies. In a big organization, a small degree of incoherence is an acceptable price to pay for the morale-raising effects of a consensus-seeking process.

But entertainment software design demands high coherence. Entertainment software is at heart a communication to an audience, and that communication cannot be confused or incoherent. It must be direct, clear, and cohesive. Great design is ultimately the act of an individual, not a committee.

GroupThink and You
At this point I turn to the role of the individual. Ultimately the balance between collective thinking and individual thinking is struck by an individual. The leader of the design team must assert the primacy of his/her own individual outlook. That act of assertion always leads to conflict with the other creative workers, who have come to expect a democratic approach to all decisions, including design.

Here we come to the personal crux of the issue: do you as a designer have the strength to stand up to the group and assert your own principles?

I hasten to inject a fine point here: there’s a difference between asserting your principles and asserting your ego. In the former case, you reject another person’s idea because it conflicts with your principles; in the latter, because it is not your idea.

This is a fine distinction, one that is difficult to detect in your actions, and it is quite impossible for another person to discern that distinction without the intimate self-knowledge that only you possess which makes it easy for people to make the cheap shot that you are asserting your ego when you are, in truth, asserting your principles.

If you are to assert your principles, then you must be willing to accept the inevitable accusations of egotism and arrogance. I am sad to say that I know only a few designers who have the strength of character to do this. The majority of creative people in this industry have had their individuality pounded out of them. They are too concerned with how they look to others. Their fears destroy any chance of greatness.

A Plan of Action
If you are to have any hope of overcoming groupthink and finding the greatness that resides only in the individual, then you must first teach yourself to let group disapproval roll off your back.

I was intensely aware of this as a child. In my high school years, I wore my pants tucked into my socks as a petty way of asserting my individuality in the face of the fascist fashion-consciousness of my peers. This act of anti-conformity brought down on my head plenty of derision, taunts, and even the rare beating. More important, it brought with it a chronic group disapproval, a pervasive awareness that I was not an accepted part of the group. It also showed me that I could stand up to the group and survive. Even today, I still wear a tunicle, an odd outer garment that draws unsympathetic stares where-ever I go. Perhaps I carry this too far; perhaps I no longer need the reminder. But in this culture, a person must train himself long and hard if he is to preserve his individuality.

I do not recommend that you tuck your pants into your socks, or that you wear tunicles -- that’s MY schtick! Go find your own weirdness. But you must expend time and effort examining your own strength of character. When you’re right, do you really stand up to the group? Or do you talk yourself into convenient compromises? Do you listen to what everybody else says before you form your own opinion? Do you adjust your opinion so that it hews more closely to the group consensus?

The second step is even more important, because if you can’t rely on guidance from the group, you’d better have a damn good replacement or you’ll be making some spectacularly stupid mistakes. You’ve got to develop a talent for ferocious self-criticism. If you’re going to stand up to for your principles, you’d better make damn sure those principles are right. It’s easy to stand up for your ego; it takes nothing more than the flick of a hormone to let ego run rampant. Many of the assertive people I know are not truly intellectually assertive; they are merely egotistically assertive. To do this well, you must develop an idea-attacking demon that assaults ideas from every possible angle. Only an idea that can survive the meat grinder is worthy of further consideration.

Preserving your individuality against groupthink does not prevent you from soliciting the advice of those whose judgement you respect. I consider myself a strong-willed individual, yet I frequently run ideas past the tight circle of confidants whose advice has proven valuable over the years. We have a standing joke: I carefully inquire into the details of the course of action recommended to me, and, after much discussion, announce that I will take the opposite course of action. The trick here is that the value my confidants lies not in the actual recommendations but in the reasoning behind the recommendations. I don’t make decisions based on what my advisors "vote for"; my decisions are based on the soundness of their reasoning. If they offer no arguments that I had not already anticipated, then I conclude that my original thinking was sound and I proceed with it. Of course, I choose advisors on their ability to surprise me.

Summary and Conclusions
Despite its values in other fields, groupthink is inimical to the creative cohesion required for successful entertainment software design. The designer must have the strength of character to resist group pressures and impress his own coherent vision upon the design. In the process, he must accept group disapproval. He must also replace group thinking with a robust process of self-criticism augmented with solicited criticism from carefully chosen advisors.