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Group think & then take action

A View From the Edge

Both business and societies need to move away from individual thinking, planning and control toward group think, supply and action. If for no other reason, the COVID-19 pandemic and the new ones that will surely be playing out over the next years, we have learned that, as individuals, as stand alone hospitals and as unique governments, we cannot tackle global issues alone. Only by combining group intelligence, strategy and control can we overcome these global threats to our way of life.

It doesn’t matter if you’re American when a pandemic lands on our shores — individualism will not, by itself, thwart the danger. In fact, individualism can only make matters worse, forsaking a broad discovery and innovation resource available globally. Edward de Bono, the eminent philosopher and psychologist who advocated teaching thinking in school, created a problem solving ethic called “lateral thinking” — putting aside your individual tried-and-tested thought process and emulating a sideways or completely unnatural thinking parameter to arrive at clarity and hopefully a successful result. Part of America’s problem — especially this administration’s problems — in combating COVID-19 has been a linear thinking model, one where you double down on what you planned to do instead of seeking out alternatives, cooperation with others and arriving at a more successful result.

The military has a rigid command structure, yet if you examine their warfare methodology carefully, it is always dependent on group think: a collection of in-the-field reports and assessment that are coalesced into a broader picture of the battlefield completely deviating from a dictatorial command structure. One of the reasons our military is so successful is precisely because we endow the individual soldier with autonomy in battle and, taking reports from that soldier, the higher command can form a battle plan that can properly assess the needs of the war. It is like computer data input. The more data you put in the computer for calculation, the more likely the accuracy of the readout. Without that group think, errors are more likely to be catastrophic.

In business, group decision by committee ruins everything when it is applied as a safety measure, often being understood as reducing risk. Decision by committee is not group think, it is group decision, which is not the same thing as it increases risk of producing lowest-common-denominator products that quickly fail. If a company wants to assess the viability of a new product, they need to widen the assessment of that product — good and bad — and then allow the command structure uninterrupted individualistic decision making.

In the cause for fighting the environmental, all too often people turn to decision by committee instead of group think. Result? Half-measures and wasted resources (money and people). A perfect example on how to achieve change is the Chipko Movement. As a group, these women and mothers in Indian villages agreed on a common purpose: To stop deforestation. Why? Because when the hillsides were clear cut, the rains came, washed down floods of mud and killed their children. They group thought past lobbying the government, past protesting the logging companies and, like Edward de Bono, thought laterally and simply realized to go to the beginning: protect the trees. They were the first tree huggers (literally).

If, in California, the people who wanted to protect the Spotted Owl had thought laterally, they could have realized the problem was the commercial (wages and jobs) need from logging. Instead of stopping logging and putting thousands out of work, if they had applied to retrain and create new industries for the loggers, a lasting compromise could have been found. In fact, the loggers would have had a better future with wood industry jobs instead of shipping the raw logs to Japan and overseas. But they all didn’t group think, the owl saviors listened to and followed a strident voice who turned on the tried and tested protest/lobby/legislation method and the forest was “saved.” Hardly.

America is the land of the individual, but without the ability to call on the resources of the many and the collective value of group think, the individualist decision maker will stray from a better future. Henry Ford knew this when he gathered GNP data and analyzed groups of American’s desires — the result? Doubling the wages of his workers’ day rate. What were they going to buy? Model Ts.

Fighting pandemics and emergencies is like that. Group think, group assessment has to be the first step to a successful plan going forward. It is, in a sense, what our Constitution demands: Deliberative bodies that come to a conclusion based on Congress’ group think. Until that process is restored, away from petty dictators making poor, often irrational, decisions and pretending these are the will of the people, we cannot right the ship, nor be better prepared for the next emergency coming our way.


Peter Riva, a former resident of Amenia Union, now lives in New Mexico.

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