Modern Day Brainstorming
The air is thick with August humidity in the Ohio tire plant. The air conditioning has been on the fritz as most of the workforce has slowed things to a stall. The three unions have been coordinating a strike to bring their cost of living up to a survivable rate while the management team keeps cutting costs to keep the company in business. The negotiating team has been hiding away in the muggy conference room trying to find a solution of how to get past this rough spot. Stan Howard, the company CEO, blurts out that “we need ideas” which is only responded to with silence. Stan decides to toss out a few ideas centering on putting together a town hall meeting with everyone to talk over their concerns. This typically hasn’t gone over very well in the past, but a few executives around the table toss out a few responses that encourage it to show that they are participating. The idea builds more, and this becomes the outcome of the brainstorming session, a reinforcement of the boss’s idea. This is a situation ripe for innovation but stuck in an environment that won’t let ideas breathe.
Emotional Reactions to Group Work
Organizations are hierarchical by nature. There is always someone in charge of someone, even the CEO must report to a board of Directors. Heuristics would say this goes back to the tribal nature of mankind where there is definite order in groups. Associated with group membership is the desire to move up in a group to obtain status or to keep the same positioning in a group to maintain status. These become the driving forces that enable an aversion to risky behaviors in fear that status will be lost.
Loss aversion to status becomes a greater concern than status gain which leads group members to tense up when the opportunity presents itself. Individuals will make calculated decisions on what they say and what they don’t say. Before each word is spoken they will make a mental evaluation on if their words will be a career plus or minus and how that will affect their status. Then bold ideas will come to their thought process. These will be the borderline ideas that can be considered either genius or crazy. These will be the same edgy thoughts that will be held close and not expressed in a group setting. Possibly they will tell a friend later after the meeting to float the idea into the ethos. If it resonates with the friend, it will expand until a coalition of support is obtained and then it can be spoken in a public setting.
If this vetting process didn’t exist and people just spoke their minds when asked, certain repercussions would follow. Repercussions are as harsh as it is immediately shut down and told it is nonsensical to the following public ridicule. The jokes are made and the freezing out of future decisions. All of the status and respect that had been built over their career was just torn down in a matter of minutes by speaking of an idea that deviated from the norm.
Handicapping of Teams
In 1958 Donald Taylor, Paul Berry, and Clifford Block published their landmark paper “Does Group Participation When Using Brainstorming Facilitate or Inhibit Creative Thinking?” In the study, they manipulated the brainstorming situation between a single individual and with groups of people. There they found that not only did individuals produce more ideas than groups, but that their ideas were of higher quality. This pointed to the finding that group brainstorming inhibits creative thinking instead of enhancing it (Taylor, Berry, & Block, 1958).
Michael Diehl and Wolfgang Stroebe in 1987 looked to further understand the group dynamics during brainstorming in their research “Productivity Loss in Brainstorming Groups: Toward the Solution of a Riddle.” Manipulating experiments using creativity blocking exercises again they found that novel idea productivity was higher as an individual than as a group. They also found that by applying a process step that would evaluate ideas resulted in the loss of productivity. Lastly, they found that they could effectively reduce idea generation by inducing apprehension that their ideas would be compared against others (Diehl, 1987).
In 1995, Paul Paulus, Timothy Larey, and Anita Ortega dove into the perceptions of group brainstormers in their 1995 work “Performance and Perceptions of Brainstormers in an Organizational Setting.” They also confirmed that groups generated half as many ideas as an individual. More interesting though was that they found that group brainstorming led to a more favorable perception of individual performance. They also found that people think they do better as a group (Paulus, Larey, & Ortega, 1995).
This calls out the paradox of the modern-day work environment. We do more work of higher quality when we do it ourselves. If we know that our work is going to be evaluated against others the uniqueness of the work will be diminished. We will still be forced to assimilate into groups to work on projects, not out of complexity but because it is still a misconceived and commonly held belief that groups perform better. But, being in a team will give everyone a greater sense of accomplishment which leaves the members with an endorphin rush of achieving consensus that then gives the impression that a team can be thrown at any problem. This is the main key to the book where teams are at a deficit and greater effort must be placed on setting the right conditions for them to be successful.
Inclusiveness Gone Too Far
In 1995 Larry Page and Sergey Brin, graduate students at Stanford University, developed a search engine that would track record data. The reality was that they had developed the framework of the tool that would revolutionize the next century. They collected early investors Andy Bechtolsheim from Sun Microsystems and Jeff Bezos from Amazon which helped the full rollout of Google in 1999. Their overarching mission of “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful” stayed true to their humanistic roots (O’Connell, 2018).
After becoming the market leader in internet search, they started to expand into mapping services, Google Earth, Calendar, Documents, and YouTube videos. They even set up their own specialized innovation Google X whose specific purpose was to take moon shots. They produced Google Glass, autonomous vehicles, and breaking the boundaries of artificial intelligence (Bellis, 2019). Imprinted in Google’s DNA is an inventor’s spirit of creativity.
One of the key elements to Google has always been their culture of inclusiveness. Their formal values of openness, innovation, excellence, hands-on, and a small-company-family rapport could come out of an episode of Sesame Street (Smithson, 2018). This has resulted in a culture that breeds open and expansive thinking and caters to the employee (Patel, 2019). Google was one of the first major corporations to place a focus on inclusivity believing that bias and inequality go against their innovative culture (Our society is strongest when we stand against bias and inequity, 2019). They were even one of the first to address transgender inclusiveness (Rosenstone, 2019). This would also give the impression along with public support of Democratic candidates that their company ethos leans politically to the left.
Choosing a political side and maintaining a high level of inclusivity can put a strain on an organization. One of the common practices at the company was to have open forums where thought pieces could be shared, debated, and help the organization grow. In 2018, autistic engineer James Damore wrote a controversial memo questioning the capabilities of female software developers exploring the logic behind only hiring the best and hiring to fill minimum quotas of females (Chuck, 2018). This thought piece was not taken in the same manner of others and a Damore was fired swiftly. He was able to point out after the firing that the culture had grown taboos of what can be explored and what cannot, claiming an echo chamber existed that is what some would call groupthink (Wong, 2018). More recently, Google created an AI ethics council to build in a responsible manner. Among the council was Heritage’s president Kay Coles James who runs the conservative think tank to which Google employees petitioned and demanded her removal from the council (Metz, 2019). A few days later, Google decided to disband the council. It is hard to argue the intentions of Google, and their extreme inclusivity is commendable. Unfortunately, they have swung the pendulum too far and extreme inclusivity intended to breed innovation and resulted in a repression of thoughts, ideas, and the creation of subgroups and counter cultures that hinder the ideation process.
Bellis, M. (2019, January 18). The History of Google and How It Was Invented. Retrieved from Thought Co.: https://www.thoughtco.com/who-invented-google-1991852
Chuck, E. (2018, January 8). James Damore, Google engineer fired for writing manifesto on women’s ‘neuroticism,’ sues the company. Retrieved from NBC News: https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/google-engineer-fired-writing-manifesto-women-s-neuroticism-sues-company-n835836
Diehl, M. a. (1987). Productivity Loss In Brainstorming Groups: Toward the Solution of a Riddle. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 497-509.
Metz, R. (2019, April 1). Google employees demand the removal of the conservative member from AI-ethics council. Retrieved from CNN Business: https://www.cnn.com/2019/04/01/tech/google-ai-heritage-foundation/index.html
O’Connell, B. (2018, December 31). History of Google: How It Began and What’s Happening Beyond 2019. Retrieved from The Street: https://www.thestreet.com/technology/history-of-google-14820930
Our society is strongest when we stand against bias and inequity. (2019, April 4). Retrieved from Google: https://www.google.org/our-work/inclusion/
Patel, N. (2019, April 4). Inside Google’s Culture of Success and Employee Happiness. Retrieved from Neil Patel.com: https://neilpatel.com/blog/googles-culture-of-success/
Paulus, P., Larey, T., & Ortega, A. (1995). Performance and Perceptions of Brainstormers in an Organizational Setting. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 249-265.
Rosenstone, N. C. (2019). ‘Trans-forming’ the Workplace to Be Transgender-Inclusive. Stanford Social Innovation Review.
Smithson, N. (2018, September 4). Google’s Organizational Culture & Its Characteristics (An Analysis). Retrieved from Panmore Institute: http://panmore.com/google-organizational-culture-characteristics-analysis
Taylor, D., Berry, P., & Block, C. (1958). Does Group Participation When Using Brainstorming Facilitate or Inhibit Creative Thinking? Administrative Science Quarterly, 23-47.
Wong, J. C. (2018, February 21). Ex-engineer sues Google, saying he was fired for condemning diversity memo. Retrieved from The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2018/feb/21/google-lawsuit-tim-chevalier-diversity-james-damore
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