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Is it true that “none of us are as smart as all of us?”

March 7, 2012


I believe in the concept of brainstorming.
I believe that if you get a bunch of people into a room to find a solution to a problem, with at least a couple of people who know what they’re talking about, you will very likely find a solution.

The problem is that we have, as a society, fallen victim to a fallacy of logic: the belief that the more people participate in a given effort, the higher quality the result, hence the title of my post. Like the pyramids, we look to the thousands of rock carriers and stonemasons and not the architect, oblivious to the fact that without the architect, chances are the pyramid would have ended up as a low lying wall…

I first got a sense of this from video games, believe it or not. I was talking to a World of Warcraft player who was explaining raids to me, and that you needed the maximum number of people to succeed. So I asked him what skills these people need to have, and he responded with “It doesn’t really matter. We just need a handful of people who know what they’re doing. The rest are just along for the ride.” “So why are they even necessary?” I asked. Apparently the more people the better, and there’s a minimum for some raids. Apologies if I got my World of Warcraft details wrong. Clearly I’m not a player.

The point is this: You need a high number of irrelevant people, but a few who know what they’re doing.

When I was younger, stories and games were about a few exceptional people, often with a few friends, who succeeded thanks to their skills, or intelligence, basically because they were better, faster, smarter than their enemies. Now, it seemed to me, we’re living in a society that plays games which do not reward individual skill, but quantity of friends… Farmville (in fact every Facebook game), WoW, EVE Online, SWTOR… All of them have this one thing in common: No matter how good you are, alone, you can accomplish nothing of note. This flew in the face of everything I’d learned in my years of playing Dungeons and Dragons.

At that point something clicked and I started thinking of brainstorming. Get a bunch of people together – it doesn’t even matter who they are or what they can do. It sounded like most of the sessions I’d been in. I thought: could it be that the role of most people in a brainstorming session is to ask stupid questions from the one or two who know most about the problem?

While Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences would seem to imply that someone will almost invariable score high in something, my life experience would seem to contradict that thought. I like Gardner’s theory, and do believe it explains a lot in terms of differences in approach to a problem by different people.

Instinctively, however, and driven by my personal experiences, I think it isn’t the number of people, but the quality of the people participating that makes the difference. Inspiration is not an additive process, no matter how many monkeys on typewriters you may set to the task. On the contrary, inspiration is subtractive, the lowest common denominator getting lower, and lower, and lower until you end up with a large body of people who vote for George Bush… Twice.

I have been in brainstorming sessions where I was, I kid you not, the smartest guy in the room. I have also been in brainstorming sessions where I was the idiot cousin compared to the competent, brilliant contributors there. Despite the ego-wrenching punch to the gut feeling that comes with it, I far prefer the latter. Why? Because the quality of the solution in a brainstorming session populated by a few exceptional individuals is far higher than a solution thought up by scores of average people.

In most cases by better solution I mean simple, elegant, enviable even. The kind of solution that you tell yourself: “Why didn’t I think of that?” Our 20-strong brainstorming sessions, by comparison, resolved to buy a piece of software to do the job. That’s right. Two days of deliberation ended with “Let’s just buy a program to do it” and a couple of “my brain hurts”. As I left that session, my thought was “We’re not on the same level here.”

So how do I apply this information in the real world?

As I was writing this post, I had a call from a client of mine. We had a talk about his current employees and their apparent inability to reach what he felt were the simplest goals. I asked him who was the mind behind their development plan. He told me they didn’t have one. To top it off he didn’t trust the team working on the product. Ah-ha!

After discussing for a short while I realised that the problem most likely lies with their hiring practices. You see, they hire to a salary target, plain and simple; a low one at that. They would rather hire two bodies willing to work for a low salary than an exceptional employee who’ll only work for twice the salary. This works in certain industries.

For example, this kind of practice works very well in manufacturing. Even a press operator, for example, can be substituted for another press operator, provided he has the same qualifications, though even there can still be skill variation that will affect efficiency, sometimes in a big way.

In technology, though, hiring from the middle or low end of the pack is death. The success or failure of any technology company has got to be the ideas of their engineers, the innovation of their developers or the discoveries of their researchers. Twenty bottom shelf researchers are not better than one brilliant Pasteur or Salk or Torvalds. If you’re going to fill your ranks with people, start with a couple of great ones, then you can do whatever you want for the rest. Don’t forget who they are, though, because you won’t want to lose them later.

That’s my thought on the matter at this point, and the advice I’m giving my client: Get yourself some talent. Have a thought to quality, even if it means you’ll have fewer employees overall. You said yourself the team you have just isn’t doing the job. I’m sure that’s exactly where you should start.

I’d be curious what my friend Gabrielle has to say about this issue. With years of experience in HR, managing numbers of engineers in high tech companies that depend on talent, few people are in a better position to respond to this opinion of mine with some substantial credibility than she is.

As for the title of this post, and the answer to the question. More people may be better when you’re talking about work, but I don’t think it’s true of ideas. Ideas come from exceptional people, and I think it’s high time we start rewarding those great ideas, and the people who bring them to the table.

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13 Comments
    Joanna Mar 07, 2012

    Unfortunately, my dear friend, it’s even worse than you thought. Many of these design by comity situations end up as a case of groupthink, where the lost the brilliance of particular individuals in the search for group cohesion produces mediocre results. I hate to use Wikipedia as a reference, but it’s the easiest one to hand, and the references listed are good.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Groupthink

    Reply
      DracosAlpha Mar 08, 2012

      I couldn’t agree more. This is something I’ve thought a little bit about lately, and rebelled a little bit against.

      It seems to me that, consciously or not, there’s been kind of an ongoing dampening of personal, individual achievements. As if excellence and independence is something to be ashamed of.

      When’s the last time you saw a screen character that succeeds all by himself (or herself) because he is simply better, smarter, etc. Where’s Indiana Jones?
      Thor? Is useless and has to be saved by his friends. Hulk? Allowed to live by the grace of others. The list of character assasinations is endless. If I didn’t know better I’d say there’s a huge media conspiracy à la Harrisson Bergeron that conspires to elevate mediocrity as the new goal to strive for. Where are the geniuses to be envied? Where are the smart go-getters that youngsters should want to emulate? Maybe they all work for banks now, figuring out market derivatives…

      I object in the strongest terms to the notion that mediocrity, that which does not offend by its excellence is in any way preferrable to true inspiration.
      Don’t really know why, but it even kind of makes me angry to think that we’re collectively getting stupid. Why is this happening?

      I haven’t gotten any smarter. Has everyone else really gotten dumber? Or is it just portrayed this way in the media?

      Anyway, I could rant all day about it. Maybe you can come over sometime soon and have a day with us, catching up, and we can hike up our pants and rant about society all day. While we’re at it we’ll yell out to the kids to get the hell off my lawn. 😛

      Reply
        Joanna Mar 08, 2012

        There’s a talk on TED about introverts which complains about this exact phenomenon as well (though not the super hero part). http://www.ted.com/talks/susan_cain_the_power_of_introverts.html
        She notes the disappearance of the loner in film, etc. I found the talk rather vindicating, seeing as I’m well out toward the extreem on the scale, the last time I did one of those personality surveys. It also gives me hope that pursuing a PhD, which is nearly an independent study if something I will be able to manage once I’ve down the groundwork.

        As for visiting, once my large embroidery is mounted for exhibition at the end of April, I will have far more availability to visit, so if you can hold out until May, I will be there! Do you have rocking chairs on your front porch? 😉

        Reply
          Alex Nuta Mar 08, 2012

          I don’t have a front porch, or rocking chairs, but there’s a pool and a spa, if that makes up for it at all… 😛
          Make room for us at the end of May and, if it’s warm enough, bring a bathing suit. 🙂

          Reply
            Joanna Mar 08, 2012

            I was thinking of the rocking chairs as the venue for yelling at the kids on the lawn…

            I will be looking forward to the end of May!

    Paul Mar 08, 2012

    In software development, too many cooks really do spoil the pot. Even in large software corporations, you will find smaller teams than most people think, which gives plenty of opportunity for individuals to shine.

    But do they?

    In my experience, only a few exceptional individuals do take the opportunity to shine and show their stuff. Others just want to get’er done with a “I guess that’s good enough”, a “why do more?” or most annoyingly “does it really matter?”.

    So there are two problems. The first problem is to create an environment where the exceptional can stand out and take on challenges that fit their talents. This is easier in small companies, generally, and I’ve been doing that for years with the exceptional individuals with whom I work. The second problem is to find these exceptional people and hire them, and this is really hard these days. I would love to “get me some talent” but I just can’t seem to find it.

    Reply
      Joanna Mar 08, 2012

      What kind of talent are you looking for?

      Reply
        Paul Mar 09, 2012

        Software designers with an understanding of software architecture and design, physics (mechanics), graphics and a solid foundation in linear algebra. That’s it that’s all… Know anyone?

        By the way, we still use some of the artwork you made for us 12 years ago…

        Reply
          Joanna Mar 09, 2012

          I’m amazed that their still in use! Way cool!

          Unfortunately, there two people I might have suggested, I don’t think either of them have physics, though one might because she designed special effects software for Autodesk. She probably would be up on fluid dynamics, because she worked on Smoke. Don’t know if she knows linear…

          The other one is a bank mainframe programmer, and I don’t think she ever did physics, or linear.

          I could send an email to the first one, if you want. See what she knows, and whether she’s at all interested?

          Reply
            Paul Mar 13, 2012

            By all means, pass the word…

            Thanks

    gabychka Mar 12, 2012

    So a lot has been said by many folks here so I’m going to try and summarize my view since I was happily called out.

    Good is the enemy of great. The bigger the team, in my view, the more likely you pulled towards good rather than “Great”. Since the average can somewhat be compared to mediocrity, getting the most brilliant folks in a room to problem solve is a good strategy. When I have a problem to address, or a solution to concoct, I naturally seek out someone I trust/respect to get help.

    THAT SAID…. one should strive to surround themselves with talent/intelligence, not just hope for a few. Like most things in life, you get out of it, what you put into it. If you’re going to hire folks, you get what you pay for, and that is a choice sometimes limited by budget, but if you can hire one brilliant person over two mediocre, the latter seems illogical and perhaps driven by someone who is looking to hire in their own image. 😉

    My short two cents.

    Reply
      gabychka Mar 12, 2012

      P.S: The following is an awesome book you might very well identify and enjoy based on this post:

      Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap… and Others Don’t
      by: Jim Collins

      Reply
      Paul Mar 13, 2012

      I agree — the hard part is to find those brilliant people and be able to distinguish them from the mediocre in a limited amount of time.

      Reply

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