The Power of Independent Thinking

My company does an employee survey every year.

There are a few things wrong with the way they do it. For example, one of the company goals is to get a certain score on the survey. A pretty high score. And when it comes time for raises, one of the ingredients in the formula is, “How well is the company meeting its goals?” In other words, the way everyone answers the employee survey directly impacts everyone’s raises.

Now, the whole point of any kind of self-evaluation, if you want to get some good out of it, is to point out things that you don’t do so well, so you can go find ways to improve them. Constructive criticism, and all that. But when you attach a guillotine to the low end of the rating scale, how many people are going to be honest if there’s a real problem?

I point this out in every year’s survey, too. And the managers, and the owner, insist that they read every single comment. And yet, every time another year rolls around… guess what? Yep, raises are still tied to the employee survey.

(To come back to reality for a moment, though: if that and the thermostats are the biggest problems with this company, I’m actually doing pretty darned well.)

Another thing they do is calculate the standard deviation on each question. And the owner was disturbed at this past year’s survey, because the standard deviations were higher than they had been in years past. He said this was a bad thing, because people weren’t all on the same page.

He actually believed that this was a bad thing. And that disturbs me.

If everyone thinks the same thing, that means that nobody is looking for anything new. Nobody is seeing the flip side of an issue. Nobody is noticing that there’s an opportunity to do things in a different way than the way they’ve always been done. There’s no innovation. There’s no thinking. There’s just yes-men and groupthink.

There’s an old saying that, if two people doing the same job agree all the time, that one of them should be fired.

(For completeness, I’ll fill in the rest of the saying: “If they disagree all the time, then both of them should be fired.” But that’s neither here nor there.)

But interestingly, some people take it even farther than that.

Tom Peters posted a very interesting article called The Power of Independent Thinking.

You’ve got a huge marketing decision to make post haste. (Or a decision about War & Peace if you’re, say, President.) You gather 10 experts in the field. Lock them in a room for 72 hours. Ask them to come up with a best estimate of, say, success of a New Product you’re close to launching. The process is better than nothing—maybe.

Alternate: Select 10 experts from disparate fields, some closely associated with the decision at hand, some not. Tell each one to stay isolated in his or her individual office, lock and bar the door, turn off all phones and computers—and come up with a best estimate in 72 hours, which will then be emailed to you. You, in turn, average their estimates and take the result as the collective output. This process/result is likely to be … Solid Gold!

Surowiecki’s argument (supported by a ton of evidence and research, from every field you can name and some you can’t) is that crowds, even crowds of non-experts, are wise beyond measure. IF JUDGEMENTS ARE TRULY INDEPENDENT … AND 100% PROTECTED FROM PRESSURE AND GROUP-THINK.

Go read the rest of the article. Every now and then, I stumble across an article that is a real gem. This is one of them.

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