Section Logo
Facebook   Twitter   LinkedIn   Email  

Page3of 3
< 1 2 3 >
Cooperative! Part 2
Torn between me and we

by DK Holland

Social activist Greg Mortenson honestly thought it was OK to make-up stories about his exploits and efforts to build schools for girls in the Taliban-controlled areas of Central Asia in his best-selling nonfiction book, Three Cups of Tea (required reading for all US service men and women bound for Afghanistan). President Obama donated $100,000 of his Nobel Peace Prize proceeds to Mortenson’s charity, the Central Asia Institute (full disclosure, I donated as well). CAI has received over $60 million in donations. Mortenson’s made-up stories, flawed accomplishments and his personal mismanagement of donated funds (many sent in by school children) were only exposed years later. In 2012, he continues to be in denial.

Filmmaker and founder of Invisible Children, Jason Russell, also probably thought he was telling the whole truth and nothing but the truth about the exploits of the intensely evil Ugandan guerrilla leader Joseph Kony in his short film Kony 2012 that went viral on the Internet earlier this year. It took way too long for Invisible Children to be criticized for exaggerating and revising history, spending too little of the donations it received (also many from school children) on actually catching Joseph Kony and spending way too much on the running of the organization itself.

Except for Hitler and Eugenics (where there was no truth, only twisted logic), Daisey, Mortenson and Russell each had enough facts to tell a pretty good story. And, in all of these four examples, it was shock and awe that captured the imagination and attention of the audience-in vast numbers. If you add up the number of people who suspended disbelief in all these four cases, it would be well into the billions. In all cases, the audiences “cooperated” by pulling others into these belief systems, by spreading memes about them, by never doubting that these men were totally truthful and therefore trustworthy. (I honestly believe everything I write is true so I urge you to challenge any of it.)


—Is this an exaggeration?
Research—How can I double-check this?
Images—Are the visuals meant to manipulate me?
Motivation—What is theirs? What is mine?
Assumptions—Question them!
Absolutes—Is it too general a statement to be useful?

We fool ourselves constantly. Healthy skepticism requires systematic scrutiny, awareness and discipline. Charles Darwin was charming in his humility. And he would attach himself to someone if they could help him. He saw Robert Fitzroy, captain of the HMS Beagle as perfect in every way. The Beagle was the ship on which Darwin famously sailed on the voyage that led to his now ubiquitous theory of natural selection. Yet later, when Darwin became famous and could afford to, he adjusted his views, seeing Fitzroy as a deeply flawed human.6 In reality, we are all as deeply flawed as Darwin and Fitzroy.

The phenomena of “group think” comes from our ancient mind, from a time when our species’ survival counted on everyone pulling together. In the late 1940s Madison Avenue giant Alex Osborn of Batten, Barton, Durstine & Osborn (BBDO) decided to share all his creative secrets in a book called Your Creative Power, which became an instant best seller and introduced the concept of brainstorming to the rest of the world. The basic idea, which we all probably know and many follow, is to throw out as many ideas as possible, without judgment. Freewheel it. Get goofy. Write ’em all down. Don’t nip creativity in the bud! Above all, suspend disbelief!

We see this technique played out weekly on the television show Mad Men, about a New York City advertising agency in the 1960s. At the real-life, modern day industrial design firm IDEO, and indeed many others, brainstorming is practically a religion. Yet in experiments at Yale University as early as 1958, brainstorming was discredited as the idea igniter it had been cracked up to be (these experiments have since been replicated with the same results). As we see on Mad Men, the ideas the team comes up with at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce (based on BBDO) are often shot down by the incisively brilliant Don Draper, creative partner, while “the creatives” look on in awe. Then Draper, a far better critical thinker, comes up with the winning idea all on his own, saving the day.

Those of us who have used the process know that brainstorming generally results in mediocre, crazy ideas. And that it definitely doesn’t encourage critical, on-your-feet thinking nor effective and persuasive communication skills nor does it build stronger teams.7 Yet, since it’s also been proven that most people do work better on teams, a more efficient tact may be to constructively, respectfully critique ideas as they emerge—while employing healthy skeptic skills,8 challenging assumptions—building on the best of the best ideas by interacting intelligently within a trusting, non hierarchical group-while accessing your inner Don Draper.

We tend to conform to the norms of the team, we establish a status quo through our habits and routines. We want to be accepted and appreciated. We want to cover-our-collective ass. So we get trapped in a web of assumptions that would perhaps not occur to somebody outside our sphere, which is why it’s so threatening to bring outsiders in. They would not follow the unspoken rules that hold us back. So sometimes we need to gird our loins but open our minds, acknowledge our blind spots and prejudices. Let “the other” in, access the genius of the janitor or the it guy or the intern to get a totally different point of view. Shake things up while trusting that it will all work out. Pry back open our minds clapped shut by conformity and the desire to be considered “just one of the boys.”

3M, the company that brings us the most mundane but essential of products—Post-it and Scotch tape—has one of the highest rates of innovation of any company with a uniformly successful product line of 55,000 items. That is a one-to-one employee-product ratio. Its policy is to move people from team to team. It embraces diversity—bringing an engineer onto a team with no expertise in the area in question—because it is open to the notion that the most gnarly of problems may be best solved by the new guy. The best idea wins.9 CA

Editor’s note: Part 3 of Cooperative! will run in the next issue.

1.    Tom Shadyac, I Am, Shady Acres Films.
2.    Steven Pinker, Better Angels of Our Nature, Viking.
3.    Ibid.
4.    Paul Zak, The Moral Molecule, Dutton.
5.    David Samuels, “Wild Things,” Harpers.
6.    Robert Wright, The Moral Animal, Viking.
7.    Jonah Lehrer, “Groupthink,” The New Yorker.
8.    Jonah Lehrer, “Better Than Brainstorming,” The New Yorker.
9.    Jonah Lehrer, Imagine: How Creativity Works, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Holland
DK Holland writes about design and teaches in two MFA design programs in New York, one at SVA and one at Pratt. She is an advisor to Project M and Design Ignites Change. Holland has been the editor of Design Issues since she started it in 1990. She is the author/producer of many books on design as well as Branding for Nonprofits. She is the producer of CitizenME, which creates transmedia tools that engage students in understanding how to become proactive citizens. Holland lives and works in her tiny nineteenth-century restored Italianate house and garden in Fort Greene, Brooklyn.