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Evidence that collaboration results in group-think and mediocrity (inc.com)
155 points by sus_007 on Nov 26, 2017 | hide | past | web | favorite | 61 comments

Creativity seems unimpeded when the one being creative is at the very top of the hierarchy. It doesn't really work for anyone else unless they have a direct contribution and connection to the dictator though.

Any requirement that new stuff be reviewed by committee (e.g. a board of directors) will tend to destroy anything truly innovative.

Why? Because the creative people can see much further than the (much less involved) committee. They seem like crazy people talking about a world that doesn't (yet) exist.

Elon Musk is doing so well because he has such an iron grip over his companies. If he ever becomes subject to real oversight he'll fail as hard as Jobs did under Scully.

This old blog post argues that wisdom of crowds works well for estimating facts, but poorly for creative thinking, even so far as to say: "Votes become vetoes". Because people don't choose what they like the most, they choose against thing they like the least.

"Ignoring the wisdom of crowds" https://blog.asmartbear.com/ignoring-the-wisdom-of-crowds.ht...

Choosing against is how I've voted in every presidential election. I have never really felt good about a candidate, only that they were less bad than the other. E.g. I voted Clinton even though I can't stand a lot of her policies because I thought Trump was worse. Vote as veto.

Very good point.

Good creative collaboration is never democratic or equal (counterexamples?). Great projects must have a lead architect. The innovation must fit inside one head that balances all aspects and makes the decisions. 'The lone contemplation' works in all levels if you have good hierarchy. You don't need to fit your ideas to everyone else's and compromise.

Creative collaboration and innovation has always existed and flourished in hierarchical settings. Architectural firms, advertisement agencies, industrial design firms, and scientific and technical R&D labs all have group of creative people working together in groups.

In my personal experience it's easier to convey idea first to the lead, then you both explain it to the whole group for the feedback. Eventually the lead decides what happens. Pitching to the group usually waters down the idea (brainstorming is different).

> Good creative collaboration is never democratic or equal (counterexamples?). Great projects must have a lead architect.

Funny, I think it's precisely the opposite. I don't think most creative people can thrive under a strict hierarchy (some famous creative people had even trouble to keep a normal job).

It's true that groups of creative people sometimes cooperate, but almost always like equals. One of the famous counterexamples I can give you is the Monty Python collaboration, which was strictly democratic. There are also plenty examples of creative collaborations between two people.

In open source software, where there is a hierarchy, it is rather informal. Linus is not a single "lead architect" of Linux; would he enforce a bad decision that most developers would disagree with, he would be forked away. He has no choice than to respect meritocratic wishes of other developers, if he wants to stay "in charge".

There were open source projects that tried a more heavy handed way of architectural management, and they failed - such as GCC or XFree86.

De facto hierarchy matters. Informal, 'light handed', and voluntary are just examples of organizational hierarchies.

>He has no choice than to respect meritocratic wishes of other developers

On the contrary. Linus can enforce his vision against majority of other senior developers because here is inherent costs friction in forking Linux. It would require large number of misguided decisions for any serious fork to emerge.

> On the contrary. Linus can enforce his vision against majority of other senior developers because here is inherent costs friction in forking Linux

I challenge you to find an example where he did that.

> It would require large number of misguided decisions for any serious fork to emerge.

In the case of GCC, this wasn't true at all. All it took was being too conservative, and not including contributions fast enough.

> There were open source project that tried a more heavy handed way of architectural management, and they failed - such as GCC

A lot of people have been moving to clang, but I'm quite sure GCC is still strong. What do you mean by failed?

A link backing this claim would be nice too, as I couldn't find any (although I just probably didn't search it right).

Ahh, youngsters.. :-) I am not talking about Clang, I am talking about EGCS, to quote from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/GNU_Compiler_Collection :

"As GCC was licensed under the GPL, programmers wanting to work in other directions—particularly those writing interfaces for languages other than C—were free to develop their own fork of the compiler, provided they meet the GPL's terms, including its requirements to distribute source code. Multiple forks proved inefficient and unwieldy, however, and the difficulty in getting work accepted by the official GCC project was greatly frustrating for many.[17] The FSF kept such close control on what was added to the official version of GCC 2.x that GCC was used as one example of the "cathedral" development model in Eric S. Raymond's essay The Cathedral and the Bazaar.

In 1997, a group of developers formed Experimental/Enhanced GNU Compiler System (EGCS) to merge several experimental forks into a single project.[17][18] The basis of the merger was a GCC development snapshot taken between the 2.7 and 2.81 releases. Projects merged included g77 (Fortran), PGCC (P5 Pentium-optimized GCC), many C++ improvements, and many new architectures and operating system variants.[19] EGCS development proved considerably more vigorous than GCC development, so much so that the FSF officially halted development on their GCC 2.x compiler, blessed EGCS as the official version of GCC and appointed the EGCS project as the GCC maintainers in April 1999. With the release of GCC 2.95 in July 1999 the two projects were once again united."

A similar thing happened couple years later in XFree86 community: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/XFree86

Elon Musk does have oversight, in the form of his investors. His creative vision had to pass through the scrutiny of the boards of those companies and individuals which invested in Tesla and SpaceX.

There's also plenty of cases of actual employees being innovative. The work produced by employees of SRI (e.g. Douglas Engelbart's team) and of Bell Labs eclipses Tesla and SpaceX in terms of innovation.

"There's also plenty of cases of actual employees being innovative." Uh, I don't think that was being questioned here. Englebart did not have a committee to gauge his budget, only the low-bureaucratic ARPA system where he had to convince only one technical person, and not a commitee of generals to get his funding. I presume ARPA itself was under more traditional guidance.

The question was not that there can always be only one protean creator in an organization. The point was that a crowd adds no value to the divergent thought process of innovation. Only a productizes output can be sanely evaluated by a large group. At this point the question is not 'could this work' but rather, does it. The former is subject to mere opinions, whereas the latter is more or less a matter of objective measurement (if done honestly).

Musk has nominal oversight, but that has nothing to do with his creativity. The BOD didn’t come up with how to reuse boosters.

People are creative. Groups are not. Elon and Englebart likely developed new ideas that were sparked by conversations with others, but that’s far different than committee meetings.

I've come to the conclusion that this often also applies to the founder / VC relationship. The best angels and VCs are relatively hands off, providing counsel when asked, hook ups and intros, and other resources but otherwise letting the founder steer the ship. Activist VCs tend to destroy anything innovative.

Is there such a thing as a non-creative person? I.e a person who actually thinks/knows/conscientiously decides they are not creative?

I think there are plenty people like that. In open source software, we see lot of people writing "exact clone" of some software (usually a game). And often, they get the job done.

They decidedly don't want to be creative, they just want the clone of the thing. Actually, it's often how you get the work done. Too much creativity is a problem. Linus started his work on Linux kernel because he wanted a Minix clone. It was as creative-less act as it gets.

I think you’re overestimating how creative even creative people are. Quentin Tarentino’s entire career has been remaking other people’s work, for example. There is a lot of room for creativity in copying.

No, I am talking about people who decide to make an exact replica. Sure lot of creativity is remixing, but these people don't want a remix.

Take somebody who wrote OpenTTD, open Transport Tycoon clone. It was an exact replica of the original game (later of course people got more creative with it).

The same time could have been spent creating, for instance, Stardew Valley. The author didn't decide to make just a Harvest Moon clone.

That is roughly a difference between a non-creative project and a creative project.

> He wrote the program specifically for the hardware he was using and independent of an operating system because he wanted to use the functions of his new PC with an 80386 processor.

Even if judging by surface appearance something is a clone, there might still be a lot of creativity involved "under the hood" i.e. in the implementation. In the case of Linux it was originally optimized for 80386 and is a monolithic kernel while Minix is a microkernel design. Fine-tuning it to run fast on 80386 must surely have involved a lot of creativity?

This is nonsense. For some convoluted definition of “creative”, this perspective holds.

The open source clones you mention are arguably not technically innovative (or some other word that stems from “novel”), but I’d argue that releasing a clone under a permissive license is novel (and creative), too.

Is translating a Terry Pratchett novel from English to Czech a creative endeavor?

You can argue that on some level, yes, any translation is creative. But I don't think it's the same as writing an original novel (even if the result is bad). On some level, it's decidedly non-creative (and that's what the GP asked about), because you already have the characters, the story, the words. And apparently, some people are fine with already having all that. (It's even not deemed creative enough to be considered different for the copyright.)

Is coloring a coloring-book creative? Compared to making your own drawings?

Is coloring creative? I think that's a different question from whether a complete, clean re-implementation of a software library is creative.

As for that question though, I'll push it a bit further - is drawing an outline of a bird creative? I'd argue it's more interesting than the next person coloring the bird. But it's also decidedly less interesting that what evolution has done in generating a bird from billions of years of evolution.

But I'd say yeah, something was created because the artist had a desire for the bird, and then produced it. Or, the artist (for some definition) had a desire for a green bird, then colored it. Of course, neither the drawing of the bird nor the coloring was novel.

So as it's not an autonomous manufacturing process, it's creative. Your bones generating blood cells is not creative work.

Software that adds colors between lines isn't itself creative, but the person who developed the software used creativity.

* I'm not a philosopher.

It's a spectrum. Some people are on one end and others on the opposite. Some in the middle.

>Elon Musk is doing so well

Is he though?


"Tesla is spending more than $1 billion per quarter to sustain its existing business and ramp up production of its troubled Model 3. "

Article seems pretty bad. It already starts of horrendously when they call the journal "ScienceDirect.com". That's just Elsevier's site. The journal is called "Personality and Individual Differences."

Furthermore, this is how the study assessed creativity:

> creativity was assessed with 10 items (e.g., “I have a vivid imagination”) from the International Personality Item Pool [...]. Participants rated the accuracy of the items as they applied to themselves on a 5-point scale (1 = Very inaccurate, 5 = Very accurate).

Meaning that they self-assessed how creative they currently feel. It was not measured how creative they actually are (though I wouldn't know how you could do that)

And these are the findings:

> shyness was related positively to both types of aggression, anxiety sensitivity, and social anhedonia, and was related negatively to creativity. Avoidance was related positively to both types of aggression and social anhedonia, and was related negatively to creativity. Of note, unsociability was related negatively to both types of aggression, and was related positively to creativity.

This directly contradicts the article's claims of "the character traits of 'shyness, avoidance, [and] unsociability' [...] are positively associated with creativity."

And, as others pointed out happiness != creative output as implied in the article: "Furthermore, intelligent people are happier when they have less social interaction, even with their friends"

So it seems like it's not as clear cut as they make it out to be.

Reminds me of http://programming-motherfucker.com/

Entertaining but a bit sad. Clearly had bad experiences with collaboration and believe they are unique rockstars who only have to produce code, rather than a product that people want.

There is a lack of critical thinking on the author's part here. He feels that these studies somehow support his position ("... something about creativity ... something resembling collaboration ... apparent negative correlation ..."), but when looked at in detail, they do not.

It’s so bad that I decided to put “Inc.” in my garbage media blacklist. After scanning their previous articles posted to HN, I relialized that I should have done it sooner.

Is your "garbage meda blacklist" only a metaphor or do you actually have one. if that's the case, how do you maintain it and how do let it affect your browsing (e.g. do you block the site or simply have a document somewhere sitting on your computer containing the list)?

Where’s the evidence? Self reported happiness of intelligent people in those situations does not prove anything with regard to collaboration killing creativity. What if creativity tends to come with unhappiness?

There is some research in that direction. Some of it with the result, that sadness/unhappiness actually feeds creativity.


What if said creativity is garbage?

If you think of “loneliness” as “unhappiness due to being alone”, and if “creativity tends to come with unhappiness”, wouldn’t that prove the argument?

The conclusion doesn’t seem to be the people in groups are unhappy, just that the output isn’t as novel in contrast.

Maybe being happy stifles our deeper creative powers?

If creating is a reflexive behavior for adapting to circumstance, we need to be less creative on our own when we’re in a group.

Oustanding progress usually comes from individuals, not from outstanding groups. Consider Newton, Archimedes, da Vinci, Jesus Christ, Luther, Gutenberg, Mozart, Einstein, Zuse, Edison, and others. They changed the world.

Unfortunately, there is also evil genius (in wickedness) of individuals [1]: Jack the Ripper, Hitler, Marx, Lenin, Stalin, Pol Pot, Hussein, etc.

[1] https://www.ranker.com/crowdranked-list/the-all-time-worst-p...

Groups are usually always mediocre since there are not many geniuses. It explains why systems of extreme group thinking like Communism never work out.

It is interesting that even outstanding things created by comittee - Ada for instance - are barely successful while inventions of individuals - Wirth's Pascal, Kernighan's C and von Rossum's Python for instance -- were/are widely successful.

Or as one evil genius observed:

When groups of small men attempt great enterprises they always end by reducing them to the level of their own mediocrity (Napoleon)

Or as one modern creative genius put it:

What do you care what other people think? (Feynman)

This is a junk article in my opinion. I ran the global collaboration open source environment for sony Playstation last decade and was heavily involved with 'enterprise 2.0' in the web 2.0 era.

The idea that 'collaboration' is cramming everyone into an open plan office is idiotic and has more to do with corporate cost saving than any coherent attempt at getting people to work better together.

Remote/home working collaboration is the norm now, yet the old command and control hierarchies, because they generally don't work that way, still have little visibility or understanding of how people actually work together.

I think it's collaboration by choice vs. collaboration by dictate. I had an awful time having to work with people that weren't at my level. And the work (not calling it "my" work, btw) always suffered as a result.

Then in my most recent project, I've done some of the best work of my life in conjunction with a collaborator. She was someone I chose, and we both brought our respective disciplines to bear. We were both quite open to and respectful of each other's input. But a lot of our work was done in solitude. Sometimes one or the other would bring a surprise to the next meeting, a distinctly different yet more elegant solution to the problem we set out to solve. It was easy for either of us to cast aside prior agreements and accept the more awesome result.

In previous jobs, I would be chastised for "going rogue" if I took a side journey to make something awesome. Some managers are blind to benefits like reductions in customer support/general headaches, increase in usability, reduction of time and motion, or just the general wow factor, when they are looking at meeting minutes.

IMO Collaboration is like any other tool. It can work fantastically when employed by skilled practitioners. And will produce shoddy results in the hands of the unskilled. Ego, pride and self-obsession also contribute to failure. It takes a somewhat enlightened person to be willing to let someone else in to their creative process. To accept criticism as a necessary part of the process of making great work, instead of taking it personally. To go to the mat as the lone dissenting voice when they know they're on to something great. And to know the difference when their own idea is something really great vs. gratuitous crap.

And that's why I hate that tendency that decisions and so on must be taken under -consensus-

If something will be decided by what everybody agrees, you're assuring it'll be by the lowest possible dominator, the lowest level that makes everybody understand and agree to.

All we have to do is raise the comprehension level of (1/2 * n + 1) voters for democracy to work well. And it's not a perpetual cycle. The universe's complexity is finite.

The universe's complexity is finite.

For a given bounded region.

A problem is that systems today are too big and complicated for a single person to build and manage. What's the best way to collaborate without loosing the creativity needed to push forward making the system better?

This is a great question. I think the answer is, you, as a creative person, need to come up with good abstractions that let you present your idea well-enough without having to do too much work.

I have been thinking about abstraction recently (for other reasons, related to learning). To me, abstraction is transformation of the space with the problem to a space where you can easier manipulate the objects the way the problem requires it. For example, we can have image represented as pixels, and we can abstract it into lines and geometric shapes. So the operation, such as moving this triangle from here to there, that would be complicated in pixel representation becomes trivial in the more abstracted, geometric shape representation.

Back to the original point. Here are some examples of people invoking abstraction in order to solve some problem:

E.F.Codd invented relational model (abstraction) for databases. It let him solve some issues that people struggled with before (how to organize data and build queries) more efficiently.

Jeff Dean invented the map-reduce paradigm of distributed computation. The original map-reduce implementation was only about 1000 lines of code.

You can also see that abstraction has a cost - it doesn't let you do all possible operations more efficiently, just some that you might be interested in. It's a trade off that you have to make in order to present your idea to the world, to make it work. However, the point is to solve enough with the new abstraction that other people take notice and will naturally help dealing with the complexity of the edge cases.

There are many other examples of abstraction from computer science (for example, high-level languages), and even more examples in mathematics. It's how many mathematicians conduct their business - trying to come up with new abstractions (new definitions) that let you handle complicated proofs in a more straightforward way.

> What's the best way to collaborate without loosing the creativity needed to push forward making the system better?

Hierarchy allows you to organize large composite efforts without relying on collaboration.

But do we need those big systems? My laptop and phone are powerful enough to generate valuable info from my data sets alone

This always on nonsense is not economical

Have large data sets? BOINC

The only reason the cloud is cool is because corporate says so. ISPs have blocked home services, pay corporate for hosting!

Surely we don’t need databases running 24/7 crunching every persons data to find valuable applications in medicine for example?

Why can’t our computing look more personalized: I collect my data offline via whatever special gadgets I need ( blood sugar monitor for example) or professional help (doctors, etc) and share as it needed.

We don’t need Google Photos operating 24/7 when laptops and phones and a small dedicated backup device can do the same

It doesn’t seem all that efficient to have huge data centers around the globe on all day when lower power, less complicated infra could do the work only as needed

Groupthink is the loss of critical thinking as a consequence of cohesion and conflict avoidance.

Groupthink can be avoided if the culture rewards critical thinking. That includes:

- team members should be free to dissent from the majority if there's a reason.

- team members should keep a reasonable level of skepticism when it comes to other members' claims. if someone shows high confidence, that confidence should be also be subject to skepticism.

- if someone wishes to communicate their opinion, it needs to be done explicitly. e.g: in my opinion, <opinion here>. Interleaving opinions and facts creates unnecessary noise and bias. Usage of superlatives should be kept to a minimum as well.

The problem is that these principles are counter to his normal social relationships work. For example, if your boss is on the majority side, it’s significantly harder for most people to dissent. Being skeptical can be perceived as being rude, so many won’t do it.

I wonder what their definition of an intelligent person is? Is it a person who scored high on a test, a master of his her profession or a high school dropout who was so fascinated with Bitcoin that he got in early and now a millionaire?

Most wealthy people are moderately intelligent.

Really intelligent people often are poor... Once you get rich, you get lazy because your money starts working for you and people around you constantly feed you with false confidence and optimism and this makes you even lazier.

The smartest people I know are all poor in terms of wealth but sometimes they have high incomes.

Intelligence is not a single thing because there are many different types and almost no one is good at all of them.

There is emotional intelligence, reasoning ability, critical thinking, communication ability, spatial reasoning skills, mathematical ability, subconscious reasoning, etc...

Most(all?) types of intelligence are positively correlated. So if you have a natural ability at one of those things, then you're more likely to be high in the others too. Even something as simple as reaction time is correlated with IQ.

I completely disagree. Most engineers and mathematicians have low emotional intelligence compared to lawyers, real estate agents and business people.

Most engineers I know have trouble reading facial cues when interacting with other people. Also they don't realize when they are being manipulated and they are incapable of manipulating others to get what they want.

People who have high emotional intelligence can essentially read the other person's emotions while they're talking to them and they can use the feedback to adjust their speech to make it more convincing. I think that's definitely a form of intelligence and it requires a lot of practice as well as natural skill.

I've met some very uneducated people with very high emotional intelligence.

This is the most amazing thing about intelligence - that there is a g factor [0].

0. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/G_factor_(psychometrics)

> Most wealthy people are moderately intelligent

They are if they made their own money. But there's no correlation between intelligence and inherited wealth.

What about brainstorming, the phenomenon where people inspire each other by building upon each others' ideas ? For me it tends to result in solutions neither of us would come up with alone. Sometimes it even comes out of misunderstanding of another person's intention - like, you read a forum thread title, an issue or a newspaper headline and think it implies something else.

There's some evidence that brainstorming is less effective than telling people to prepare a list of few ideas before the meeting and then merging those lists [1]. During brainstorming sessions people's creativity seem to be limited by other people ideas, not inspired by them.

[1] http://www.businessinsider.com/brainstorming-3-reasons-why-e... (sorry, couldn't hunt down original paper mentioned in the article)

In my experience, brainstorming tends to be dominated by whoever is loudest and least coherent - the fuzzier and less thought-out an idea is, the easier it is for everyone in the room to agree on the broadest strokes, and have completely different understandings of how to actually get there.

Try to pin them down on specifics, and you get labeled as obstructionist or otherwise "difficult".

The study group consisted exclusively of males. Maybe it's a male thing ? I heard (but can't remember the sources) that women work better when collaborating, while men work better alone.

I wonder if I get downvoted for saying this. I think misandry is politically correct, because it's not that discrimination is frowned upon, it's just misogyny and racism.

The leaps from the sources provided to the conclusion this article draws are massive, and those sources aren't suggesting "collaboration results in group-think and mediocrity."

If this were broadly true, large science projects like the the human genome mapping, LIGO, and especially the LHC, would have little chance of success.

In one of his autobiographical books, Richard Feynman has a passage in which he says that one of the best things about being at Caltech was the constant interaction with other talented people. The practice of science is much more collaborative than popular 'great men' hagiography portrays it.

I have no doubt at all that there are many examples where forced collaboration has been counter-productive, but the successes of modern science suggest that this article is completely wrong about the optimal conditions for creativity.

science ≠ creativity

Article incorrectly names the journal as Elselvier journal ScienceDirect.com.

It’s actually Personality and Individual Differences

Group think is pretty good if you select your group well.

What evidence was that then? A survey?

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