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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