Wednesday, September 21, 2016

A taste of majority

The master does not hit his slave anymore, the manager lives in harmony with his people. Our modern age reinvented the pyramid, organizational consultants never stop preaching the difference between management and leadership. The chain of command belongs to the past, like the steam locomotive and printed books.
Companies are led in a gentle way which is a combination of consensus building and the leader’s visionary skill to coach or cajole her people into the right direction. She switches to telling mode on rare occasions when there is really no other way. How it happens in the daily life of a company? The middle managers have a meeting around an issue which they have been discussing for a while now. The leader of the group is waiting for a solution to emerge, she is wise and patient, but the clock of the market is ticking, the Patek Philip on the investor’s wrist is ticking, it is almost audible. It is time to make a decision. Twenty minutes to the end of the meeting, ten minutes, still no unanimous agreement. The leader of the group is smiling, then she gives a brief summary with a conclusion. She just made a decision, based on what she senses as the opinion of the majority and what she thinks to be right. Don’t worry, they will iterate the issue and the decision made for a couple of weeks, but they have an agreement everybody can relate to.

This sounds the ideal way of resolving an issue, the endless meetings and discussions before the decision are viewed only preparatory work, the same amount of time and energy poured into it after the decision are viewed only as a refinement. The decision-making mechanism, this obscure mix of vote by majority and decision by the authority disguised as and with elements of consensus building, looks effective. But majority thinking is bad for the group.

The hidden assumption is that it is more likely the majority knows better. The outliers, the extremes are evened out, and the moderate truth is in the middle. This assumption holds true in some cases, when a group of people have to estimate the mass of the Moon, the best estimate is the average of the group. However in many practical cases the majority of the group makes a wrong decision. The Salem witch trial or Pearl Harbor are prime examples of what is called groupthink in psychology. This is what happens when members of a group avoid conflict and strive to come to a consensus, resulting in an irrational decision. They can see this irrationality only in retrospect.

The majority does not always make irrational decisions, but by the logic of majority, the differences fade away, and what remains is something dull and mediocre. Groundbreaking inventions were not made by committees.

At the early stage of an idea most people don’t know yet what their opinion is. They need to gather information, they need to calibrate what important stakeholders think, not necessarily to agree with them, but to have a reference point. It takes time until most participants have an opinion and they are convergent enough. Like it takes time until water freezes, it doesn’t happen instantly, the water molecules may have different opinion whether or not to form ice, then there is a point in time when we would say it is frozen, even though there are still molecules that think otherwise and are still in a liquid state. The majority opinion forms faster if we leave the system intact. If we open the door of the freezer to check our bowl every five minutes, if we stir, the whole process will take longer. This is why there is an unspoken rule in communities that nurture majority thinking: do nothing until a consensus is built. Given how long it takes, the problem with majority thinking is not its dull results, but its stifling effect most of the time. Organic growth is a nice idea, a forest in the wild has its amazing beauty no painter can beat. But do we have decades for an organic decision to be made?

“Guys bashing majority thinking are a nuisance. Guys with a minority opinion are annoying. Why don’t they use their talent and energy on more useful things that support the group? Why do they want to hinder the progress? Why do they keep asking irrelevant questions and throwing stupid ideas at us? It would be a lot easier without them.” It is tempting to sweep the minority under the rugs. It is so tempting that it happened many times in history. Get rid of them and move on. The main problem with this is that it does not work, as soon as you get rid of the most uncomfortable opponent of what the majority thinks, someone reveals her objections. She has been one of the majority so far, but now she steps out. The example of the French Revolution shows if you make the minority disappear (by executing them, for instance), the massacre will never stop. There is always an uncomfortable minority.

Majority thinking is not really good for the group. It is like taking water and syrup and fix a beverage. Its majority is water, but plain water tastes so different. I mean it is tasteless.

(to be continued)

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