A Camel and a Horse: When Group Consensus Fails

I heard a good analogy the other day, and here it is: a camel is nothing more than a horse designed by a committee

Now, it might seem like a very simple analogy on the surface, but it really struck a chord with me. I can just see a group sitting around a circular table, trying to design the ‘horse’. “It needs to be able to survive a long time in order to better tackle long journey” says one, “well why not put some water reservoirs on it?” says another. “We can put them on its back, right?” says a third, “yeah, you will just sit between them!” says another. On and on it goes, as people push and pull their thoughts and input, until the final product looks nothing like a horse, but more like a… well, a camel.

Is it Good or Bad?

Now, don’t get me wrong, I think that in the right circumstances group discussions and committees have their place, and are indeed great tools. however, I think there are two very specific times when group think does not serve the best interest of the idea. Let me tell you about those.

When the End Goal is Intangible

Think about visionary products and offerings. Usually, it is of the utmost importance that the person with the original insight not take too much input along the way, at least until they have a concrete prototype (which is the right tame to taking advice and counsel).

Think about if Steve Jobs had taken everyone’s 2 cents on the way to making the iPhone. Chances are they would of told him to make a physical keyboard, they would of told him to focus more on the hardware, and on and on. Chances are the iPhone would not be the product we know and love to date.

When the end goal is intangible and unclear, I truly think it is important that group consensus be put on hold until the original visionary achieve some kind of ‘base’ or foundation. It’s like hunting an elusive animal – if you are the only person who got a glimpse of it, other’s won’t even know what they are looking for – chances are they will point you in the wrong direction. Sure, it’s good to listen to advice on tracking animals in general, hunting, or whatever other general skills apply – but you are the only one who has seen the creature, and at first, you must find it alone.

When There is No Data

My favourite quote from the new Yahoo CEO is “when there is data, we will go on the data, when there is only opinions, we will go on mine.” A lot of the time decisions come down to gut and opinion. A lot of decisions and business moves have no concrete  evidence to support them. Is it better to send out the sales presentation at night or in the morning? If there is no data, it is a gut decision, and it shouldn’t be a decision made by consensus – it should be made by the person responsible for the outcome.

The obvious next step here is that you should be trying to get data whenever you can. Even while you are playing it by ear, going on gut, you should be trying to develop all the data you can, so that in the future you no longer have to go off your own opinion, but can use the data you have gathered.

In Summary

At the end of the day, committees and group discussions are good. They serve to provide a wide range of experiences and insights, and you never know where the big breakthrough will come from – it might be the mail boy. However, there are times when committees and consensus will only hurt you, especially when there is little to no data available, or the desired outcome is intangible and unknown to all but a few (or one).

Knowing the circumstances and situations that you are making the decision in can better help you decide what tools to use to come to the aforementioned decision – is it better to put it to the group, or is it better to decide alone?

 

Blair Livingston 

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