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Source link: http://archive.mises.org/16590/teaching-consensus-losing-creativity/

Teaching Consensus, Losing Creativity

April 21, 2011 by

A sure way to temporarily flag employee moral is to call an employee meeting.  “What’s this about?” “I’m busy getting things done, is it really required?”  Even when a meeting is for the best intentions of exploring ideas and working on problems, egos clash and time is wasted as participants go off on tangents.  David Sherwin spells it out in a piece for the Atlantic; group discussions kill creativity.

Sherwin explains that while these discussions seem to bring out creativity as ideas are ping-ponged back and forth, these sessions are really social affairs where everyone loses track of time, “at the cost of surfacing everyone’s unique perspectives and voices. We risk filling the time with consensus, rather than exploring divergent, multi-disciplinary viewpoints. It is in the friction between these views that we explore new patterns of thought.”

However, as any college business major knows, group assignments are common in management and marketing courses.  Business students are falling behind their peers because of, “the heavy prevalence of group assignments in business courses: the more time students spent studying in groups, the weaker their gains in the kinds of skills the C.L.A. [College Learning Assessment] measures,” writes David Glenn in the New York Times.

Glenn uses Angela D. Stanton’s marketing research course at Radford University as an example.  Student teams of four or five work together throughout the semester on a series of reports.  But no one student completes a paper individually.  Glenn writes,

The pedagogical theory is that managers need to function in groups, so a management education without such experiences would be like medical training without a residency. While some group projects are genuinely challenging, the consensus among students and professors is that they are one of the elements of business that make it easy to skate through college.

As one expects, the division of labor emerges rapidly in these groups, with the numbers work being done by the math geek, the writing done by the English major, and so on, with the charming slacker doing no work at all.

In their book Rework, Jason Fried and David Hansson write that when operating a business, any interruptions are to be avoided, especially meetings, because they squash productivity.

So does business eduction imitate the business world, or the other way around?  Either way, meetings are the bastion of  bureaucrats, who are anything but creative.


Joel April 21, 2011 at 5:12 pm

My experience with group projects in school has been exactly as you described, regarding the division of labor. Our project was graded as a group as well, so the slacker served only as a millstone around our necks. I realized it would be similar in business if one member cost us productivity. Still, it was campy and frustrating.

Jerry Kirkpatrick April 21, 2011 at 5:27 pm

On business meetings, as one wag said: “the best meeting in private business is no meeting at all, because work does not get done when a meeting is being held. The second best meeting is a stand-up discussion in the hall. The third best is in a room with no furniture, so no one can become comfortable and, as a result, talk too much. The fourth best meeting, if it has to be held, is in a room with uncomfortable furniture. Meetings are the bureaucrat’s favorite time waster.”

As a marketing professor who teaches marketing research, I have never in 33 years of teaching assigned a group project. I got stuck in two groups when going for my MBA. I learned all I needed to learn about groups in those two projects!

nate-m April 21, 2011 at 8:59 pm

none of us is dumb as all of us.


Bruce Koerber April 21, 2011 at 7:40 pm

Now imagine how ridiculous it is for sociologists (and other quacks of the social sciences) to claim that society is an entity!

Shay April 21, 2011 at 10:09 pm

It’s not like talking in meetings is the only way that people interact and collaborate.

Brandon Adams April 22, 2011 at 10:37 am

Surely it’s no less ridiculous than a priori rejecting the usefulness of empiricism in economics.

Inquisitor April 22, 2011 at 2:50 pm

“Surely it’s no less ridiculous than a priori rejecting the usefulness of empiricism in economics.”

It is far more ridiculous. If you have any new, non-refuted arguments against apriorism in Economics, marshall them. Arguments against “society” as a real entity are well known here, so if you need to have them repeated to you, do let us know and we’ll oblige.

The word “empiricism” is usually just thrown about without much thought as to its actual meaning just about as much as apriorism is. When you come up with a way to show how mere historical correlations suffice as theory, let us know.

Brandon Adams April 22, 2011 at 3:42 pm

As far as I know, Mises didn’t deny the existence of society, he denied that anything useful could be gained by studying it, due to the complexity of human behavior.

In any case, while that may have been true for his day, it certainly isn’t true today. We can run repeatable experiments that demonstrate tendencies for humans to behave in certain ways. For example, in the money splitting game, where one player divides a pool of money and the other person can accept or reject the split, we know that humans tend to reject offers they perceive as unfair, opting to walk away with none of the money instead of some of the money.

I’m interested in this sentence of yours:

When you come up with a way to show how mere historical correlations suffice as theory, let us know.

Would you say the same about all inductive reasoning? Only deductive conclusions are valid?

Anthony April 23, 2011 at 12:14 am


Austrian economics (unlike the mainstream) recognizes that people value “non-economic” things in transactions. We have no problem with the results of the money splitting experiments, they conform with reasonable expectations of human behavior. Homo-economicus is not an Austrian tool.

Knowledge about human behavior can definitely be used to inform economic theory, but studying behavior is not the same as studying economics. The reason that economics (as opposed to economic history) cannot be studied empirically is because it is impossible to control for variables and impossible to meaningfully measure the results. How can you possibly know which of the trillions of interactions and observations that make up the economy to observe, or even what results to look for, unless you have already used a priori reasoning to develop a theory.

John April 21, 2011 at 9:14 pm

Back in the late ’70′s I worked with a group of engineers who hated meetings, especially those that involved writing proposals for contract work – where obfuscation and double-talk were the order of the day, and anathema to the mathmatical precision of the discipline of engineering. One brilliant unit manager had the ultimate cure for a long, drawn-out affair with the marketing department – an excellent, large, ripe cigar! Alas, this form of civil disobedience is no longer legal.

Vanmind May 2, 2011 at 4:47 pm

“…anathema to the mathmatical precision of the discipline of engineering.”

Yeah, shallow intellects are funny that way.

Ohhh Henry April 21, 2011 at 11:07 pm

In their book Rework, Jason Fried and David Hansson write that when operating a business, any interruptions are to be avoided, especially meetings, because they squash productivity.

Meetings are terrible timewasters, but they are necessary in any large organization. To get around this problem, in my experience the people in private industry bring their computers, phones etc. to meetings and happily continue with their normal work while keeping one eye and ear on the actual presentation.

But I heard from friends who work in the government that it is absolutely, strictly forbidden to bring a laptop or other device into one of their meetings. There must be something ironic in this – the government meetings on the one hand are bound to be more useless and time-wasting than any meeting which occurs in private industry, but on the other hand it’s not like any of the attendees have anything particularly urgent (work related) to do with their time.

There are some meetings which private industry must hold which are more or less forced onto them by government, such as sexual harassment and racial sensitivity training. Presumably it would be politically incorrect to hold these meetings in large groups and then give the appearance that nobody was paying attention to these urgent, government-mandated “problems” as they typed away on their computers sending and receiving emails, writing reports, etc. So the private companies responded by creating individual online training which people can cover in the privacy of their office or cubicle, whenever they have the time, and devoting only as much attention to it as is required to pass the multiple-choice quiz at the end. This gets the job done (such as it is) without the embarrassment of a human trainer having to recite politically-correct mantras at an audience who would only stop typing and texting on their laptops and phones long enough to raise their eyebrows and whisper a wisecrack to their neighbor.

J. Murray April 22, 2011 at 7:17 am

“devoting only as much attention to it as is required to pass the multiple-choice quiz at the end”

Great one I saw was an online training that told you which answers you got wrong, which answer was correct, and gave you a second chance at only the ones you missed. You could skip the entire training, take the test, and make up the ones you missed if you didn’t get the mandated 80%. They were designed to show that they were “training” you, but you could complete the whole thing in 5 minutes.

Total genius.

Yancey Ward April 22, 2011 at 4:52 pm

My former company had the same BS online training sessions with quizzes, and yet I witnessed most of my colleagues dutifully spending several hours every year doing these when all could be done in about a total of 20 minutes.

J. Murray April 22, 2011 at 5:39 am

Heh, reminds me of a course I was required to take in college. It was basically a 4 credit hour butt kissing of Covey. Part of the course was getting into groups and doing projects. Groups were randomly selected and you were given various projects, the big one being a charity drive for a list of pre-selected organizations (yes, forced labor).

The first meeting was horrendous. I felt most of the good ideas kept getting “consensused” into oblivion. It always felt like we were picking the bad idea every time. Pretty much like voting in an election. I didn’t like where this was going and asked the instructor if I could opt out of the group and do the projects on my own. I was told that “this simulates the business world.” So I replied, “Well, I quit then and am forming a small business.” The instructor apparently liked this and said I could do the current project on my own in conjunction with the group project as a test. I was told flat out that I would never do as well as the group because I was losing out on the brainstorming process. The group was happy to be rid of me, too. I’m not terribly diplomatic and when I feel something is right, I stick with that until proven otherwise; you can’t vote facts into existence.

My solo project managed to get the second highest score in the class of some 200 groups of 5. One other group scored higher because they did a better job of visual presentation, something I’m not all that great at (too much of a data-oriented person, I don’t care if it’s got an artistic cover sheet).

My best guess is that groups foster a tragedy of the commons mentality. You figure that the grade is shared, so you can slack off a bit and someone more concerned will pick up the slack and you can ride the wave. Consensus also removes any sort of responsibility over what is being done, so if something fails, you can just shrug it off and blame the group. It’s not your fault after all, the whole group voted on it. All these group classes seem to teach is the fine art of blaming someone else and doing as little as possible to skate by. Basically, teaching you government work.

geoih April 22, 2011 at 6:56 am

I think you are correct. The main problem with these academic group projects is the associations are forced on to the group. I think you were lucky to be allowed to go off on your own. Too often the breakup of a group is not allowed, which only enables the disfunctional group dynamic (to the detriment of the actual producers).

In a real business, non-producers are quickly eliminated from a group. This is a lesson academics apparently don’t wish to teach.

Greshams-law April 22, 2011 at 7:55 am

Indeed, I have never really come out of a group meeting thinking that I’ve made creative progress. Instead, I always come out somewhat confused or with a sense of consensual boredom.

It reminds me of something Humphrey B Neill mentioned in ‘The Art of Contrary Thinking’; that creativity and innovation are usually found in the opposite of consensual and normal modes of thought. So, if you seek to be creative, then simply examine the contrary! Obviously group meetings are not the place for that – they’re a politician’s arena…

Justin April 22, 2011 at 8:13 am

I don’t think the problem is group work, so much as the way it is done. I still believe that group brainstorming sessions–provided your “storming” with people who have brains–can be quite productive. Similarly, hiring lazy people and then leaving them in their cubicle to do their work isn’t likely to result in productivity either. The fundamental problem is the inability to fire the lazy. As Lou Holtz used to say: “Motivation is easy. You eliminate those who are not motivated.”

One other thing: I strongly suspect that a lot of “group work” in college is motivated by reticence of instructors to flunk students who need to flunk. Instructors don’t want to be labelled “mean” or accused some sort of discrimination, so it’s just easier to throw a bunch of students into a group and grade the group.

Jerry Kirkpatrick April 24, 2011 at 9:00 am

Brainstorming is a specific—and very productive—technique for generating ideas. Prerequisite is no criticism. Group projects in B-schools are done under the pretext that they simulate the business world. The real reason for group projects, sometimes bragged about when I was in grad school, is that they reduce the amount of grading that has to be done. Ten 4-person groups in a 40-student class means only ten papers to grade, as opposed to 40. The real world, however, differs quite a bit from the classroom. In a real business, you get paid to get along with your co-workers. If you do a great job, you will likely eventually get a promotion and/or raise. In the academic group project you get the same grade as your lowest common denominator. Grades and salary are not exactly the same!

Enjoy Every Sandwich April 22, 2011 at 9:44 am

A committee is a group that keeps minutes and loses hours. ~Milton Berle

A committee is a cul-de-sac down which ideas are lured and then quietly strangled. ~Barnett Cocks, attributed

Sorry for the quotes, I’m just emotional on this subject–I hate meetings. All too often they’re just the default “solution” to a problem that nobody wants to take responsibility for.

J Cortez April 22, 2011 at 10:01 am

You know, all of what was said in the post and comments has happened in my experience as well. In every job I’ve had, the best work came out of myself and my co-workers when we talked out things for five to ten minutes while standing around at our workspaces. Whenever stagnation entered the picture it was always came as a result of policies and processes created during a meeting that was an hour or longer. Out of the hundreds of official meetings I’ve been in, probably only two or three were actually productive.

newson April 23, 2011 at 11:06 pm
Mike August 16, 2011 at 2:20 am

Sit back and enjoy a cigar while you speak with friends.

Miami Lakes Cigars

Hair Extensions October 23, 2011 at 1:44 pm

It’s always the policy makers who misjudge the required change, resulting in total system failure..

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