Tools for Group Processes

The technique for group facilitation highlighted below won’t work in a formal multilateral negotiation setting, but it is a great way to facilitate a group process when the discussion becomes contentious or somehow gets derailed. (If it can work for highly specialized cognitive scientists …)

At a decisive moment, I called a meeting of all the participants. About 25 people crowded into a room, and others were on the phone as part of a brainstorming exercise called “six thinking hats.” This technique, pioneered by the author and inventor Edward de Bono, requires a debate’s participants to identify, by using colors, the essential nature of the points made — white for facts, black for discernment, red for emotions, green for creativity, yellow for optimism and blue for coordination.
During our encounter, everyone was heard and various team members took turns jotting down the “colors” of the statements that they and other people were making. In this way, the participants could see more objectively whether their arguments were driven by facts and solid reasoning, and whether they were being open-minded.
Via When Debate Stalls, Try Your PaintbrushPreoccupations


Summer Camp, Group Dynamics, and Seeing Beyond Your Group

One of Mitt Romney’s go-to economists, Greg Mankiw of Harvard, explores the value of surrounding yourself with difference, the monumental task of achieving comity, and implications for finding a way out of the Washington budget crisis, with differing world views on Obamacare:

A classic result in social psychology, called the Robber’s Cave experiment, sheds light on the current dysfunctional political dynamic. It was conducted in 1954 by the psychologist Muzafer Sherif.
Mr. Sherif took a group of 22 boys, 12 years old, to a summer camp in Robber’s Cave State Park in Oklahoma. The boys did not know one another but came from similar backgrounds. They were all being raised in white, middle-class, Protestant, two-parent families. The boys were randomly split into two groupsvia From Summer Camp, A Parable for Washington

What can we infer–as explained by Mankiw? When faced with a super ordinate goal (finding food, shelter, or other necessity that equally impacted both groups) a participant might put aside their particular groups’ goals.

Crowds Are Not People, My Friend –

Groupthink is not universally bad; the wisdom of the crowds may not be as good as some imagine.  “The assumption that crowds have some non-fragmented consciousness leads us to the false dichotomy that we draw between physical and virtual crowds: one is dumb, the other is smart.”

How did we get to this point?  Poor reasoning based on bad science.

For years, sociologists thought a crowd behaved like a herd of animals: at some point, it reaches a critical mass and the will of the crowd overrides individual intelligence and individual decision making.But that’s not what happens. Groups of people are still made up of people. They can behave in helpful and intelligent ways, or they can behave in dumb and dangerous ways. But in either case, a crowd’s behavior depends on what individuals are thinking and how they interact with one another — not some overpowering collective consciousness. “Crowds don’t have central nervous systems,” McPhail said. And that is true whether the crowds you’re talking about are physical or virtual.

via Crowds Are Not People, My Friend –

Booklist | SuperCooperators – By Martin A. Nowak –

The mix of econ and biology brings a new take on game theory.  “Language, cognition and morality, Nowak argues, are evolutionary spinoffs of the fundamental need of social creatures to cooperate.”

In the 1990s, Nowak and Karl Sigmund, building on work by Robert Axelrod, showed that the Prisoner’s Dilemma, played over and over, could describe cycles of behavior in which strategies of selfishness (“Always Defect”) are beaten out by cooperation (“Tit for Tat”), then overtaken by even more cooperative behavior (“Generous Tit for Tat,” summarized as “Never forget a good turn, but occasionally forgive a bad one”), only to be invaded once more by egoists until the cycle begins anew. These “evolutionary dynamic” models, made more realistic by introducing an element of randomness, demonstrate that under the right conditions, competition can lead to teamwork. They also show how fragile that balance can be.

via Book Review – SuperCooperators – By Martin A. Nowak –

The Behind-The-Scenes Partnership At Apple : NPR

It takes two–or more–to make a team function.  NPR explores the partnership of a visionary CEO with a previously ignored design genius.

The relationship between Apples CEO Steve Jobs and head designer Jonathan Ive has resulted in some of the most important products of the new century.

via The Behind-The-Scenes Partnership At Apple : NPR.

Amy Chua and the Need for Interpersonal Skills

For me the debate over Amy Chua’s “Tiger Moms” now-legendary WSJ article and new book fits best as a question of cultural expectations and parenting styles.  But as the bloggers and comments swarm, David Brooks manages to lob a good counter–arguing that the skills of socialization, including interpersonal interaction and group mastery–trump indivualized, mandated achievement.  (His column is notably titled, “Amy Chua is a Wimp.”)

I’m not taking sides, yet.  For me, expectations among many non-Chinese (or non-immigrant, as some have pointed out) parents do seem to be low.  In Utah where I live it can be quite depressing to see how the mix of low funding for teachers, low expectations from parents, and the new pressures of NCLB and “rigorous” testing have provided incentives for principals to help bring up the rear (good goal) yet while neglecting the middle and upper range of students–all the while beefing up language arts/math (very important) and losing social studies, science, music, foreign language and even sports.

But a key issue in the Brooks column is, namely, what is lost when students are isolated from seemingly “non-academic” or, better stated, “non-achievement oriented activities.”  I agree instinctively with his goals, but it does feel like he’s rhetorically over-stating the benefit.  A sleepover is more complex as a course at Yale?  Not likely…but perhaps more or equally important is a more accurate assertion.

Bringing it all home, I can’t help but see Brooks argument as a case for co-curricular and other experiential learning opportunities at all ages.  In higher education, this is my ballgame–study abroad, international internships, simulations like Model UN, etc.  In the meanwhile, rage on Amy Chua and others….

Practicing a piece of music for four hours requires focused attention, but it is nowhere near as cognitively demanding as a sleepover with 14-year-old girls. Managing status rivalries, negotiating group dynamics, understanding social norms, navigating the distinction between self and group — these and other social tests impose cognitive demands that blow away any intense tutoring session or a class at Yale.Yet mastering these arduous skills is at the very essence of achievement. Most people work in groups. We do this because groups are much more efficient at solving problems than individuals swimmers are often motivated to have their best times as part of relay teams, not in individual events. Moreover, the performance of a group does not correlate well with the average I.Q. of the group or even with the I.Q.’s of the smartest members.

via Amy Chua Is a Wimp –

Booklist – “Smart Swarm” via Deseret News

Lessons from bugs, birds, and other creepy-crawly things for the would-be diplomat:

Miller summarizes in two lessons what he has learned from swarms, flocks and colonies of selected insects, birds and animals, whose instinctive processes his book describes in easily understandable detail.

“The first is that working together in smart groups, we too can learn the impact of uncertainty, complexity and change.”

The second … is that, as members of such groups we don’t have to surrender our individuality. In nature, good decision-making comes from competition as much as from compromise, from disagreement as much as from consensus.”

Though the lessons arent new, they do bear some thinking about.

When we humans select groups to attack problems — groups such as legislatures and boards of directors — do we pay enough attention to the intellect of the members, as distinguished from our own personal interests and the personal interests of those we select?

Are we smart enough to put aside our annoyance at disagreement to look sympathetically for merit in the other fellows point of view to avoid the damage of polarization?

via Smart Swarm: Working together in smart groups | Deseret News.