An Article Review
Group Think: What does 'Saturday Night Live' have in common with German philosophy
By Malcolm Gladwell, The New Yorker
December 2, 2002
Taking up a favorite theme of his – how innovation happens – Gladwell tells a number of stories about creativity in groups, ranging from the Saturday Night Live dream-team to the Lunar Men, a group of remarkable men at the cusp of the Industrial Revolution, who gathered every full moon to discuss, literally, everything under the sun...or... rather, the moon. These noteworthy chaps included Erasmus Darwin (the grandad of Charles), Matthew Boulton (metals industrialist), Josiah Wedgewood (fina china entrepreneur), James Watt (Mr. Steam Engine) and Jonathan Priestley (discovered oxygen).
From the recent book, The Lunar Men: Five Friends Whose Curiosity Changed the World, a group biography by Jenny Uglow: "their inquiries ranged over the whole spectrum, from astronomy and optics to fossils and ferns... One's personal passions – be it carriages, steam, minerals, chemistry, clocks – fired the others. There was no neat separation of subjects."
What were they doing? In an age before intellectual specialization, they were reaping the benefits of learning from each other across disciplines, and seeing novel insights from different perspectives. They also needed each other to think out-of-the-box and engage in "philosophical laughing" because "those who depart from cultural and intellectual consensus need people to walk beside them and laugh with them to give them confidence." [My emphasis] The SNL comedians – Dan Ackroyd, Gilda Radner, John Belushi, and Bill Murray – also had a similar dynamic. But what made them so good together also had a dark side; in their case, it was a deep, often self-destructive, creative and emotional interdependency. Substance abuse, trading sex partners, and no social life outside of their cosseted world took its toll at an individual level. Belushi overdosed and Radner got cancer. The others dispersed, which is normal, because many of these groups have a natural life cycle. "The special bonds that created the circle cannot last forever."
Using these strikingly different stories from different eras, Gladwell helps us to see that you need the 'right' amount of groupthink for great ideas to occur. We often reflexively dismiss groupthink as a bad thing, but this is not always so – a timely reminder for us practitioners who are responsible for designing such learning processes. Group structure also matters. For breakthrough thinking and genius, we need to combine the best traits of a "club" – without being too insular and boring; and a "cult" which met people's higher emotional needs – without cutting them off from reality. In other words, you need the right kind of homogeneity and exclusivity; that is, a "safe" place to discuss provocative ideas within a bounded, shared context. But you also need enough diversity, external pressures or outside feedback, and experiential and intellectual fire power for things to be stimulating. (GBN tried to strike this balance with varying degrees of success.)
This analysis of an 18th century informal society (which still exists) resonates strongly with our 21st century present. It helped me articulate, in another way, what I'm seeing swirling and coalescing around me. Like at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, we are at another moment in time where we need these kinds of support groups to incubate, test and enact really bold, assumption-changing ideas about our future – and in particular, alternative visions of what our future may look like. So like the Lunar Men, I'm seeing modern day pioneers and innovators-to-be (many of which are women this time) grouping together to engage in a form of "philosophical laughing." This time, these groups span geographies and cultures, and are connected with email, telephones and websites. Face-to-face meetings are still central. Group retreats are becoming essential. But the conversation is becoming increasingly "glocal", that is, the sweet spot between global and local concerns and needs.
The Pioneers of Change is one such social network, which I'm connected with; its aim is to be a safe place for reflection, experimentation and action across diverse groups of young people around the world. This is but one of many. Other groups or "floating initiatives" are looking at different parts of the proverbial elephant. For instance, working at the cross-hairs of the private, public and social sectors, we see examples like the Global Institute forming, which is trying to develop a fundamentally new approach to addressing global systemic problems. Many of the tools they are using (learning journeys, scenarios, dialogue) are processes that I have been trained in during my GBN years, and they are putting them together in a way that I have been dreaming about over the last 24 months. I knew someone was ahead of me! And thank goodness for that.
So, this is the kind of work I'm embarking on at present. I'm building my social networks, support groups, platforms for activity; and I will be paying careful attention to the group boundary conditions and structure. (Another very helpful and practical resource is also Leading Teams by Hackerman.) The intent is to help close the "ingenuity gap" I see between the unprecedented nature of today's global problems, and the social tools we have at our disposal to successfully deal with them. As Homer Dixon frames it, it's a supply versus demand issue: the demand is only going to increase for dealing with complex global problems – whether they be climate change, security issues, access to fresh water and other resource scarcities, global epidemics like SARs and AIDS, more effective intellectual property regimes, etc. – so we better work on the supply side, that is, creating the right amounts of social ingenuity at the right time. We experienced waves and waves of technological innovation; now it's time for a commisserat amount of social and political innovation. Of course this is a very ambitious, seemingly abstract and ungrounded, a really big thing to bite off, which I don't apologize for: we need equal parts ambition to meet the scale and demands of what's ahead. (Also see High Noon: 20 Global Problems and 20 Years to Solve Them by JF Rischard.) And, as my first hand experience tells me, this does connect very concretely to real needs and issues on the ground floor of development. We need more options for the future, not less. Unfortunately we're at a "tipping point" where a number of macro driving forces – economic, ecological, social – are converging together in a way that may precipitously narrow the degrees of freedom for this kind of global strategic conversation.
Next full moon is Friday, October 10th – the harvest moon, I believe. So gather some people together, and do some philosophical laughing with your mates.
Other links to The Lunar Men.Posted by nicole at October 8, 2003 02:57 PM