Are Meetings Making You Dumber? Try This…

Guest Post: Stefan Lanfer

This is another in a series of blog entries being posted from the Communications Network Annual Conference in Los Angeles.

One of the most piercing insights, and the most practical advice I heard at last week’s Communications Network  Conference arrived in the opening plenary. We heard from Jim Surowiecki, author of The Wisdom of Crowds, which has sat for a long time on my to-read list – even though it’s one of those books, like Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink,or Chris Anderson’s Long Tail, where you get the hypothesis essentially just reading the title. (OK, for Long Tail, it helps to have the chart too.)

In short, Surowiecki argues that large, diverse groups consistently outperform the smartest guy or girl in the room.  They even do better than groups of “experts.” The only trick is figuring out ways to aggregate individual input, and to determine a true group insight – like taking the average of our 100 guesses at the number of jelly beans in the big glass jar that started at conference registration, and then followed us to the opening night reception, where Eric Brown harassed just enough of us into participating for the experiment to validate Surowiecki’s point.

Why does diversity win? Homogeneous groups tend to make the same kinds of mistakes. They can’t see their own blind spots. All kinds of diversity are valuable – racial, socio-economic, generational, experience, and more.  Most important, however, is cognitive diversity. This is the ability to frame problems in completely different ways, to bring independence of thought to a problem. In contrast, homogeneous groups often take cues off of each other – especially where there is a strong leader defining the problem and setting the tone. Just picture the “brainstorming” meeting where the CEO or Executive Director kicks things off by talking for 10 minutes, and the awkward silence that follows when he or she invites the team to unload all its ideas.

Really, he says, all ideas are good ideas.Let’s hear ‘em! There were no calls of “Amen!” from the crowd, but quite a few nodding heads, when Surowiecki asked, “How many of us have sat in meetings and, thirty minutes in, have said to ourselves, ‘I am now stupider than I was thirty minutes ago?’”

When Suroweicki added that the “best group decisions emerge out of conflict, not from easy consensus,” I jumped in line at the microphone to ask a question. It struck me that, many of us in philanthropy – and maybe in the social sector generally – are part of these teams that, despite bringing lots of kinds of diversity, we still have these shared missions, values, sense of purpose (and sometimes, lets admit it, ideologies too) that make it hard to generate true diversity of thought.

With all of the intelligence, and experience, and insights, and let’s not forget passion about our work, it seems like we should be able to sit in a room together and hash it out – to dispassionately consider the evidence and the options. And then the bright insight just emerges in beautiful, easy consensus, right?

So, I asked Suroweicki – how do those of us on relatively small teams bring diversity of thinking into the room? He offered three specific tactics:

  1. Use devil’s advocates – assign someone (or maybe better if it’s several) on the team to stake out and defend different views. Makes sense, though Surowiecki also pointed out how easily this tactic is undermined (as in, “OK, OK, let’s let Bob tell us why we shouldn’t go down this path – and then let’s discuss how Bob’s reservations are too trivial to worry about, and let’s agree to do what we’ve already decided we want to do.”)
  2. Have junior folks speak first - rather than opening a brainstorming session by letting the leadership set the stage and tone (and setting the boundaries of free thinking – even if inadvertently), insist that the most junior team members inject their ideas first.
  3. Don’t even try brainstorming together - at the start of your “brainstorming” meeting, send people back to their offices to brainstorm on their own. Then, once you’ve had a chance to synthesize, come back together, and talk about what came up.

I would add a fourth, which came up in different ways later in the conference – find ways to LISTEN! to those beyond your team, outside your building. Lucy Bernholz challenged us to use social media not merely to talk louder, but to really ask and really listen to those with different ideas. The same could be said more broadly of any of us trying to use communications as a lever for change.  This doesn’t happen if we think of communications merely as the imparting of knowledge – with us behind a megaphone pointing out at the world. No, it only happens when we think of communications and remember its kinship to words like “communion” and “community.”

Stefan Lanfer is an Associate for Strategy & Knowledge at The Barr Foundation.

Leave a Reply