March 5th, 2015
Schwarmdumm (Gunter Dueck, 2015) - Swarm Stupidity
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(This review is about a book unfortunately unavailable in the english language.)
Nowadays, swarm intelligence seems to be the default expectation imposed on people working together - the group should naturally be smarter than the sum of its individuals. It's refreshing that Gunter Dueck's latest work is not on this over-hyped phenomenon, but it's ugly cousin, swarm stupidity, where a group is counter-intuitively less intelligent than its members combined. So it's not about stupid individuals forming a swarm, but about intelligent individuals who surprisingly behave stupidly as a group.
What is stupidity?
You might recall Stephen Covey's Seven Habits for Highly Successful People, where one habit suggests thinking in terms of win-win. In contrast, Gunter Dueck cites Carlo Cipolla, an italian economist, who declared five fundamental laws of stupidity, its golden law being that stupid people cause harm without any gain for themselves - in Covey's model lose-lose. Dueck elaborates that so far, societies have only identified people as harmful who act in terms of win-lose and claims that the stupid are just as harmful, but cannot be held accountable, as they don't gain from their actions. Dueck thinks that this threat to society should be addressed.
Sources of swarm stupidity
Let's take a look at where swarm intelligence actually works, like Wikipedia, Open Street Maps or Open Source Software. Here, individuals volunteer to work, they are motivated intrinsically. In corporate environments this is radically different: Managers are expected to force ill-formed ideas like unrealistic growth rates on employees, who are put under pressure and cannot perform well. By employing Queuing Theory Dueck proves that people should never work at more than 80-85% of their capacity, as work is never distributed evenly over time, and a higher workload would result in inacceptable delays - emphasized by the fact that people are now tied up in meetings, explaining to each other why things are delayed, instead of doing something about it.
A highway full of cars is nothing but a parking lot
In environments where people work beyond a reasonable capacity limit, any first-class work results are becoming impossible over time, as opportunism is taking over. Instead of investing in the future, people's main objective is to survive the day-to-day business, people are forced to act street smart instead of book smart. Dueck cites Akerlof and his theory on the Market for Lemons, a system dominated by a reinforcing downward feedback loop. This is the effect of swarm stupidity.
A way out?
As this is a systemic problem, an individual has a hard time doing anything against swarm stupidity, and Dueck is a bit clueless himself. He calls on us to strive for excellence and not settle with mediocrity. We should go out and build small units of swarm intelligence, which over time can turn into clusters and gain a critical mass, in order to turn the downward spiral back around into an upward spiral.
Dueck is strongest when he combines scientific findings from all over the place into a coherent, credible and compelling narrative. He is a true system thinker and not simply a man of opinions. I love how he employs the science behind the Parental Alienation Syndrom to show how day-to-day business is undermining innovation. This stuff is incredibly creative and enlightening, in his own terms, brilliantly simple.
Swarm stupidity may not have the theoretical depth of his previous works, and some chapters in the middle seemed a bit black-and-white, but considering that his recent books are targeted specifically at a larger, less academic audience, an easier digestable version of Dueck is a good thing. I wish everyone would read this book!
(I was intrigued how the idea of Sustainable Pace fits into the context. I think accumulating technical debt is somehow similar to swarm stupidity. I also thought that the segment on Queuing theory provides great arguments for a system like Kanban and work-in-progress limits.)