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September 2005
October 2005

2005-09-14 »

Membership Control and Groupthink

sfllaw expands nicely on the topics I brought up in my previous entries, but agrees with me a bit more than I'd like, so I'll have to resort to arguing with myself. That, incidentally, is exactly the crux of what I'm about to explain.

In one class in first year Engineering, Professor Aplevich mentioned in passing an effect called Groupthink. It's really important, and it stuck with me.

Imagine you take a group of four people, and you give them the basic outline of a project. Isolate the group from co-workers, other groups, and especially customers. It doesn't matter much whether the members initially agree or not, as long as their personalities don't totally clash. Make them work together on their project - four people on a single project can be a very tight team - for a few weeks or months. Now, let them out of their cells, er, cubicles and see what they've accomplished. Two things are almost universally likely:

  • Despite any number of initially differing opinions, the group is almost always in final agreement about the way they executed their project.

  • The mutually agreed-upon project is usually complete garbage because the group has lost all perspective of reality. Trying to convince the team members of this, however, can be extremely difficult.

It all makes sense, of course: over time, all the objections that four people can think of will be addressed, and they'll eventually come up with a mutually satisfactory "point solution" - one that deals with all the problems any of them can think of. But there are lots of solutions that fit that small number of points. Unfortunately, reality contains many more points, and the solution that a small, isolated group will come up with is almost always incompatible with reality. In fact, a solution that all four members wouldn't agree to, but which agreed more closely with reality, would be a much better solution.

Now think about the mechanics of Membership Control: how can it not lead to Groupthink? Strictly controlled group membership is effectively self-imposed thought isolation; members of the group aren't exposed to reality, because they deliberately block out the aspects of reality they don't like. We're free software developers; we don't talk to those Proprietary Weenies. We're techies; we don't talk to those Business Weenies. And so on.

The result is exactly the result you get from Groupthink: a bunch of people who can work together towards a common goal and produce a self-consistent solution that fails completely in the real world, because the real world is larger than the group's sphere of understanding. Free software misses problems that are obvious to people making proprietary software, and vice versa. Brilliantly cool stuff designed by isolated techies can't sell, and ideas proposed by marketing are unimplementable.

You can surround yourself with people who agree with you - not just because they're Yes Men, but because they really really believe in the same things you really really believe in. In fact, the Internet guarantees that, no matter who you are, you can find such people. But it doesn't mean you're right.

Membership Control always leads to Groupthink. If you are right, this is amazingly efficient. But chances are you're not. If you're not, who will tell you so?

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