The problem with The New Groupthink

I’m an introvert. I like being an introvert. I’m glad someone is clarifying what introverts are or are not, which is part of what Susan Cain does in her New York Times Article, The rise of the new Groupthink. However she’s careless in how she makes her case (even though I agree with some of it).

For starters to say “I’m an intro/extrovert” is an overstatement. We all behave differently in different situations and can be more or less extroverted for many different reasons. Many people think I’m an extrovert because I give lectures, like fun debate over beers,  and can be a big part of a conversation or a party. But often I’m not that way, and can sit a corner and happily observe or read for hours. I’m the same person in both cases, just in a different mood, situation or atmosphere. It’s a false dichotomy to assume because I am introverted in one situation that I am introverted in all. The main factor is if I’m around people I know and like or not, which speaks volumes about coworkers and shared workspaces.

She writes:

Our companies, our schools and our culture are in thrall to an idea I call the New Groupthink, which holds that creativity and achievement come from an oddly gregarious place. 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.

Groupthink is a term coined in 1972 by Irving Janis. He described it as: “A mode of thinking that people engage in when they are deeply involved in a cohesive group, when the members’ strivings for unanimity override their motivation to realistically appraise alternative courses of action”.

First, you’ll find his definition and Cain’s diverge. He focused on crisises caused by groupthink (especially military ones, like Pearl Harbor and The Bay of Pigs Invasion), rather than the passive negative effects it has on a culture at large (which is what Cain is after). But this passive cultural notion is what has become the popular use of the term for a long time.

However, I don’t recall there being a time between 1972 and 2012, or possibly ever, when the culture in the business world had swung heavily towards radical individualism.  The was no period of “Solothink”, where we went too far towards individual isolated creativity, and are now trending back the other way to a “New Groupthink”.  Staking claims of big trends is self-aggrandizing and is a good way to get attention for selling books or getting web traffic, but that’s about it. Collectivism is a natural consequence of being social creatures that lived for eons in tribes.

Second, lone geniuses have never been “in”. Not in science. Not in art. Not anywhere. Lone geniuses have always had a hard time because they were loners, and for any idea to gain traction requires other people to want to listen to you, listening being something we more easily grant to people we know and like. Lone geniuses have always been more prone to being outcasts since great ideas force change, and most cultures, and the powerful people in those cultures, naturally want status quo. The lone geniuses whose names we know had teachers, partners, agents and supporters who made their work known: even the most introverted loner genius we know of was not truly alone.

Cain writes:

Research strongly suggests that people are more creative when they enjoy privacy and freedom from interruption. And the most spectacularly creative people in many fields are often introverted, according to studies by the psychologists Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Gregory Feist.In other words, a person sitting quietly under a tree in the backyard, while everyone else is clinking glasses on the patio, is more likely to have an apple land on his head. (Newton was one of the world’s great introverts: William Wordsworth described him as “A mind for ever/ Voyaging through strange seas of Thought, alone.”)

Newton was never hit by an apple, and likely most of the apple story is false. But that’s fine, as many people don’t know the truth there.

But I couldn’t find the Csikszentmihalyi study she mentions (no specific reference is offered). Having read some of his work, I know he has found many creatives show both introverted and extroverted tendencies, just as most people do. But to her main point, she is overstating her claims. It’s definitely true some people are more creative when they are alone. But everyone is different. Many great creators were collaborators, and had their most famous ideas in the presence of their partners. For many it’s the back and forth of time alone, and time with others, that fuels most creative fires.

She presents another false dichotomy. There is no reason a person can’t have both solitude and interaction with others in balance. It’s not one or the other, ever. Or even as Alan Cooper has suggested, simply split the difference and work on creative projects in pairs.

She mentions Mr. Wozniak’s invention of the Apple computer, and his advice:

“the very best of them are artists. And artists work best alone …. I’m going to give you some advice that might be hard to take. That advice is: Work alone… Not on a committee. Not on a team.”

This is an anecdote from someone who prefers to work alone. I have no idea how much he has considered other people might be different from him or not, or which artists he’s talked to or studied. Artists in unavoidably collaborative fields like music and film would disagree with him.

There is a long and rich history of artists working together in shared spaces. Artist communes, artists retreats, artist studios. Edison’s Menlo park lab was filled with people much like Wozniak, and for most of them it was the most productive and creative period of their entire lives. Pick any garage based startup company in the history of Silicon Valley, and you’ll find a story of people working together, in confined spaces. I’m sure many of them needed more solitude at times than others, but to cast it as a binary  choice, either work alone and be a genius, or work in an office and fail, isn’t based on any reasonable accouting of the history of invention or of art.

Anyone can go outside, or for a walk, or find some of their solitude on their own time. Better bosses wisely give employees control over environment (e.g. work from home, which is done by more U.S. employees now than ever before)  and hours if it makes them more productive (including creative production), but good bosses of any kind are rare. I wouldn’t call this the rise of “The New Bossthink” epidemic, but there are some basic certainties undercutting her core premise.

And yet. The New Groupthink has overtaken our workplaces, our schools and our religious institutions. Anyone who has ever needed noise-canceling headphones in her own office or marked an online calendar with a fake meeting in order to escape yet another real one knows what I’m talking about. Virtually all American workers now spend time on teams and some 70 percent inhabit open-plan offices, in which no one has “a room of one’s own.” During the last decades, the average amount of space allotted to each employee shrank 300 square feet, from 500 square feet in the 1970s to 200 square feet in 2010.

It has not “overtaken our workplaces or schools”. Throughout the history of the U.S. high school class sizes in major urban areas have likely never averaged less than 20 people in this half century. By sheer logistics of the number of students, or employees, we have always been housed together in small spaces. She doesn’t cite her sources for office size, and the trend may be for the worse, but the basic notion we share space with other people is quite stable and old. Colleges, universities, and cities like NYC are so dense with people it’s very hard to find solitude relative to most of the planet. But all three are well known environments for  creative cultures. Exactly how much solitude qualifies? Is it a coffeeshop? A table at the library? Or is a good pair of headphones, great tunes, and a comfortable chair sufficient for some people to achieve it? Solitude is personal, and that’s the problem with all the studies. They try to take an averaging of everyone, but there is no average person.

They might be a minority, but there are many examples of very creative output from companies that work in shared, open spaces. Valve, the game company known for Portal and Half-Life, has teams work in large shared rooms (video of their office here). Menlo park, Google, Facebook, Hewlett Packard, all worked in cramped group spaces, at least at first. Since there are some examples, the physical environment can’t be the only variable. What is it about Valve or other successful places that allows them to thrive independent of all the research Cain offers? I have my ideas, but I wish Cain offered hers.

The New Groupthink also shapes some of our most influential religious institutions. Many mega-churches feature extracurricular groups organized around every conceivable activity, from parenting to skateboarding to real estate, and expect worshipers to join in.

Churches and religious institutions are odd examples of independent thinking. People join churches to explicitly participate in group thinking, with shared beliefs and codes. They may be even more tightly controlled today, but the core basis for the church in the first place is a fundamental interest to share well defined and old thoughts/beliefs with others.

It’s been a bad month for Brainstorming consultants, as Susan Cain takes a page from Lerhrer, with big swings at Osborn and brainstorming:

But decades of research show that individuals almost always perform better than groups in both quality and quantity, and group performance gets worse as group size increases. The “evidence from science suggests that business people must be insane to use brainstorming groups,” wrote the organizational psychologist Adrian Furnham. “If you have talented and motivated people, they should be encouraged to work alone when creativity or efficiency is the highest priority.”

She doesn’t cite a specific study. At least Lehrer named the authors and the publication year for the studies he based his argument on. If a writer refers to a study, they should be obligated to allow the reader to follow their tracks (A name, a university, a year. Something). If they don’t want to bother then they can offer their own opinion, which would be fine. But to say “decades of research says” and give no references is problematic. Perhaps her book offers more support.

She ends with a moderate and balanced position which I can agree with:

To harness the energy that fuels both these drives, we need to move beyond the New Groupthink and embrace a more nuanced approach to creativity and learning. Our offices should encourage casual, cafe-style interactions, but allow people to disappear into personalized, private spaces when they want to be alone. Our schools should teach children to work with others, but also to work on their own for sustained periods of time. And we must recognize that introverts like Steve Wozniak need extra quiet and privacy to do their best work.

24 Responses to “The problem with The New Groupthink”

  1. Steven Harris

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    Reply
  2. Bob Baxley

    Two quick points — (1) There is a move in education to force groupthink into everyday assignments. Increasingly kids are placed together to work on an assignment that is handed in as a result of the team effort. What’s missing however, is not only large-scale projects based on individual effort and thought but also any instruction on how to actually work together — how to divide up the work, hold each other accountable, etc. As a result, the group projects are most often done largely by one person in the group with the others barely contributing. That’s not good for anybody. Note that none of this has anything to do with class size but rather is a philosophical choice in what the insititutions want to teach about process and methods.

    (2) Clearly there are multiple stages to the creation and perfecting of ideas. And each of these stages require and benefit from both individual consideration and group consideration. Insights and originating ideas invariably come from a single individual. Although they are fragile at this point in their development, the right group can help to make them stronger by connecting them to other ideas and confirming the strongest elements of the original kernel. With the idea at that stage, the individual often goes back to strengthen the idea further by expressing it in a more fully formed and systematic manner that makes it strong enough to survive the criticism of those outside the immediate group. That larger group makes the idea stronger still and inspires the individual to further refine the expression. It is truly a cyclical process that nonetheless begins with and ultimately depends on an individual originating and then shepherding the idea through all these various filters.

    Put simply it is this: individuals invent, groups perfect.

    Reply
    • Arik Johnson

      Very well stated!

      Reply
    • Jeffrey Cufaude

      You’re misusing the term groupthink when applying it to collaborative exercises or group work. If we’re going to debate the merits of Cain’s assertions, we need to sue terminology appropriately.

      Reply
  3. Andrew Armour

    The issue I have with the original piece by Susan Cain is that whilst pointing out individual thinking to come up with an idea – she does not properly acknowledge the key role of collaboration, conversation and connections within innovation and commercial success.

    My piece on this is on my blog here – http://goo.gl/f8L6B

    Best,

    AA

    Reply
  4. xtiansimon

    “I don’t recall there being a time between 1972 and 2012, or possibly ever, when the culture in the business world had swung heavily towards radical individualism.”

    When I arrived at SGI in 1997, they were there, but their star was waning. Strange programmers with “cave-like offices” and reputations for madness.

    Reply
  5. Paul Muench

    Of course her article is meant to sell her book, and she’s probably glad you are lending a helping hand. She discusses the criticisms you raise in her book.

    Reply
  6. Pie

    Love the critique and the observations within. As another Introvert, I can attest to how the creative process is a balance between outside stimulation and reflection. When it is with trusted colleagues, the conversations are less taxing than the ones at an event.

    From experience, I find open areas more conducive to collaborating. While everyone needs some space, openness encourages random conversations that can lead to something new. I’d often strike up a conversation with a colleague and have others join in with their ideas. Afterwards, I’d return to my space and process those ideas.

    While I haven’t read her book, from what you have shared, it seems like it is heavy on hear-say which doesn’t help prove anything. I think the real key to creativity is setting up areas that let people be comfortable. That necessitates flexibility as one person’s comfort may be another person’s burden.

    -Pie

    Reply
    • Paul Muench

      Scott has only said that he read the NY Times article and not the book.

      Reply
  7. Zsolt Fabok (@ZsoltFabok)

    Hi Scott,

    When publicists refer to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi they mean the Flow (amazon link: http://amzn.to/zR5p0g). You may find some ideas/references there If you are still interested. I haven’t read it yet though.

    Cheers,
    Zsolt

    Reply
  8. Vicki

    Actually, you are _always_ introverted. Personality traits do not change. You may appear to act extroverted, but you’re not “being” extroverted. Your mental pathways aren;’t changing; your body chemistry isn;t changing. Intro/extro version isn’t a choice.

    Sorry, but I really wish more people grokked that. How you act is a choice; how you behave is a choice. Your personality is not a choice.

    Also, assuming that an introvert is a person who doesn’t (can’t) give lectures, like fun debate over beers, or be a big part of a conversation or a party, misunderstands tyhe meaning of what introverts are at a very deep level.

    Read the book, Scott. MOst of your first paragraph here wouldn’t have been written if you had read the book.

    I also recommend Laurie Helgoe’s”Introvert Power” and/or Marti Laney “The Introvert Advantage”.

    Reply
  9. El

    Your post misses the mark. Schools have been over run with group work and group projects and this is not a good thing. They say it prepares you for the real world but I have yet to experience any group work in the real world done in the terrible fashion it is done in school.

    At the end of the day, nothing beats good ole individualism. I work better alone. Making me work in a group only causes inferior quality instead of superior quality.

    Reply
  10. Aaron

    I think you might like Diana Senechal’s book Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture. It addresses some of the same problems (loss of solitude, excessive group work) but without the overstatements or pop psychology. You might disagree with her points, as you disagree with some of Cain’s–but I think you’d appreciate the keenness of her argument.

    I was surprised that Cain didn’t mention Senechal’s book in her article. It had just come out. Cain was clearly aware of it, as she mentioned one of Senechal’s blogs just a few days earlier.

    http://www.thepowerofintroverts.com/2012/01/07/reading-ideas-for-the-weekend-signs-of-a-quiet-revolution/

    Giving her the benefit of the doubt, I’ll just suppose that she hesitated to mention a book she hadn’t read yet.

    Reply
  11. Sara

    She doesn’t CITE (not SITE) a specific study.

    If they don’t want to bother, THEN(not THAN) they can offer their own opinion, which would be fine.

    Don’t need a comma here
    But to say “decades of research says” and give me no idea which papers in the last decade she is referring to, is problematic.

    I find this heartening. You have written 3 bestselling books. If you can do that while still making mistakes like these, I’m sure I could pull it off eventually. Maybe you’d say though that it’s more about the ideas than the grammar… grammar is irrelevant and doesn’t matter, nor does it sell books…?

    Reply
  12. Ramon

    After reading the book and various related articles, I definitely think that the Susan Cain does *not* create anything resembling a “false dichotomy” or “binary choice” that you mention. She repeatedly mentions that we fall along a spectrum, that no sane person exists at either extreme, that there are ‘ambiverts’ around the middle of the spectrum, and that we can choose behaviors (for a time) that are different from our inborn temperament.

    Also, her focus is on our *culture* not so much on individuals per se; her descriptions of individuals are for illustration rather than proof. And as you note, she is talking about a *new* groupthink, not a particular one from 1972: she’s never implied there was a “solothink” period, but only that *enforced* groupthink has become more dominant. (I agree that it has, for whatever reason: economic, pragmatic, or intentional.)

    She wasn’t trying to force low stimulation environments on those who thrive on thinking together; she was just pointing out the opposite is happening: that education and workplaces are forcing togetherness on those who thrive on low stimulation environments. She is the one arguing for balance, not compulsory extremes; for example, she has praised Steve Jobs’ Pixar plan, where you are forced to informally bump into people on the way to the (one) rest room area, but where there are also private nooks.

    Reply
    • Scott Berkun

      Thanks Ramon. I responded to the her NYT article, not the book, which I have yet to read. It seems the article is not the best representation of the book.

      Reply
      • Ramon

        Thanks, Scott. Her book does go into the subtleties and nuances and exceptions and qualifications more than a single interview, article or presentation possibly can. I thought the book was thoughtful and circumspect, especially considering that her ‘message’ is actually quite modest and unimposing. In a broad sense, she’s just bringing up the introvert/extrovert temperament spectrum as a valid, useful, meaningful and long-overdue topic for discussion.

        Reply
  13. Wakjob

    Steve Jobs totally disproved your “lone genius” theory.

    Reply
  14. Marius

    Check out Grigori Perelman, possibly the most extreme lone genius ever. I tend to find some comfort in that article because as a software engineer, jobs all over are trending toward collective work and ownership, colocating all team members, reducing privacy, constant interruptions to ‘collaborate’ on something. I don’t like these trends, they make me less prone to innovate. I need space to reach depth in my thinking and this space is increasingly diminished.

    Reply

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