Why are large organisations so lacking in intelligence? On the surface, it would seem that having the minds of many individuals working together would produce a smarter super-organism, but in practice the reverse is almost invariably the case. The problem might be that neither hierarchical nor democratic command structures are effective at pooling knowledge and experience.
Imagine that each individual's knowledge, skills and experience could be shown as a cone of sight marking out a particular angle of a circle. Those with great proficiency mark out wide cones, inexperienced novices mark out narrow cones. (No-one, I suggest, would see more than, say, 180 degrees, since we all have our blind spots, and these are generally far bigger than it feels from our own perspective). Now consider the effect of hierarchy and democracy in terms of combining these cones.
A democratically organised team must win approval from all members. Thus instead of being able to combine all of its cones into one giant near-circle, the resulting cone tends towards the intersection of the other cones – the more people whose approval must be won, the narrower the cone. Together we are dumber than we are individually in this model of organisation. (No wonder that game developers that run on democratic principles rarely manage anything more than first person shooters, by far the simplest commonly deployed design template for a videogame). Add to this the likelihood that members on any given team are quite similar in their knowledge and experience and the problem can be further exacerbated.
Hierarchy compounds the problem: if approval must be won by people higher up a chain of command then even if the individual teams can pool their knowledge and experience successfully, the degree of competence that can be transferred is limited by the cones of those higher up. We're only as dumb as the stupidest link in the chain. (This is why bad management or intractable marketing can scupper the most promising proposal, although bad communication is another culprit in this regard). Combine this with the problem of the democratic team and it's a wonder anything worthwhile is ever achieved.
Instead of democracy, teams might consider alternative principles such as sociocratic consent, whereby rather than seeking the approval of everyone the process permits all reasonable objections to be considered. You can raise a complaint, which the team must discuss and address, but if you cannot coherently object your consent is tacitly assumed. By pooling potential problems, instead of attempting to intersect judgement, the resulting imaginary cone can potentially be made larger, rather than smaller.
Instead of hierarchical control whereby each successive step up the chain has greater power and influence (limiting success to the competence of those most remote from any given project), executive objections can be used to guide the process. Thus the marketing department (for instance) can raise its reasonable concerns as problems, but may not propose its own solutions. (Some kind of appeal process can further improve this approach).
Ivan Illich argued that many of the problems of our societies are rooted in the hierarchical structures of our schooling system, which prepares everyone to operate in similar structures in their professional lives. Against this, the communication potential of the internet offers us powerful new ways to organise ourselves, to flatten hierarchies, and to pool knowledge effectively. We are still a long way shy of fully utilising this potential.
Our companies and our nations are both hampered by collective ignorance. Breaking free requires new ways of thinking about how we co-operate.
The opening image is the cover to the book When Did Ignorance Become a Point of View?, by Scott Adams. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended and I will take the image down if asked.