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Friday, March 18, 2005

GROUP THINK AND ACCOUNTABILITY: On his blog, Mr. (w)hole Dan Allison picks up on what I wrote yesterday, about the dynamic of 'group think'. He writes that he thinks that group-think is the "number one shadow of the so called integral movement". That he lives in Boulder and and experienced it first-hand makes his statement all the more interesting. He talks of how the nature of the integral community has been confining. So definitely check his entry out. I entirely read in this entry not an intent to trash integral or any integral communities, but to carefully, as he writes, "mind the shadow". It is a role of conscious stewardship. He takes account for his experience and opinion of the community's dynamic.

Whether or not group think is a diagnosis of integral institute's internal dynamic, the characteristics of group think are, to my mind, of fundamental importance. The dynamic, like a tumor, can grow in any large-scale collective context, so we ought to be aware of it. We ought to be informed stewards as we engage the world and negotiate situations with lots of people involved. To know about group-think is to use contemporary skillful means.

Yet it also raises new questions, such as 'what are the conditions for its emergence?' In general, I think that group think's characteristics (see here) go right in hand with the rise of the internet age, and in fact the larger information age. Yes, it is the contemporary face of time-honored herdism, or herd mentality. But conditions now are manifestly different than conditions 2000 years ago. Faced with an overload of data, insights, information, technology, perspectives, personalities (not to mention good old fashioned friction and inertia), start-up organizations have a difficult road to plow.

There is just so much to consider as organizations face the world, especially those which aim to engage the entire world. Even long-time organizations struggle not only to adapt but to survive amidst the plethora of competition, apathy, analysis paralysis, personalities, commodificattion, creative ideas, newly emergent economies and technologies, and a sense that there is a transition at hand in the philosophies fundamental to the business-model. Change, for those that want it, comes in excruciatingly slow tempo. It comes slowest to those who want it the most.

This is to say that we ought to be both concerned and compassionate about group-think. It is bigger than any one man or woman. It would be easy to say 'ooh, I found the problem', as, for example, many commentators did in their diagnosis of the CIA/WMDs issue (investigate recent stories on NPR for commentaries on group-think; if I recall correctly, many went a bit over board). Certain people, who have a natural aversion to any kind of organizational power, might use group-think in a larger agenda bent upon deconstruction of perceived hegemony (yeah, even to type those words is rhetorically repugnant - sorry, won't happen again). Basically, I worry that the diagnosis of group think will be an excuse for poor reasoning, easy blame-gamin', and naive protest of organizations of any kind. Humans are social beings, and to work together is hard-wirded into our humanity. And to work together is inherantly problematic. Every note on the piano, we remember, is a bit out of tune.

In general, I believe that if integral institute suffered from anything (group think or not), it could have been remedied by a coherant plan of action. Hence the adage, "a failure to plan is a plan to fail". You have to make a blueprint, which you then share with those on your team, with whom you want to build an organization. Same goes for any kind of collective assemblage. You think Trump is gonna build his 'international condo tower' in Chicago without a blueprint that the construction company looks at every day? It is an essential document that saves folks from heartache later. It is a guard against willy-nillyism. You have to make a decision, and allow it to run its course. Nothing will ever be constructed that is grammatically perfect.

Time and time again, it was made clear to me (in my 16 months of relationship) that there was little to no plan, little to no blueprint, little to no map that indicated what the mission was, and how the mission would be navigated. Wilber, as president of i-i, and which everything revolves around (literally and figuratively), would often say that 'we were making this up as we go.' It was a rudderless ship. It was a proposed organization without a model. There was nothing concrete, except a couple words on a public website (i-i's site) that explains what the hell this was concretely about. Or one of his favorite metaphors, which I paraphrase as 'i-i is a train that steams forward at 100 mph at the very moment it lays its track'. Cute, but maddening.

If anything, what held together the few threads of 'organization' were Wilber's personality and the constant in-flux of new people, who each brought an expectation that there was something concrete to i-i. Their energy and excitement, while is lasted, fueled the continued email- and conference-call-commonality. That vaporous thread was most of what held i-i together, at least while I was associated. To say that i-i is like a vampire is far too extreme of a statement to make, and not fair. But i-i definitely feeds, so to speak, on fresh blood. To not know about the recent and past history of i-i is to be the most effective kind of participant, oftentimes (too often).

All of this makes me wonder if the larger condition of group-think is in major part the result of organizational sloppiness, lack of foresight, a resistance to concretize work flow and roles, a constant change of course from the leadership, a condition where people give great deference to the leader (because of his/her charisma perhaps), and the lack of means of in-person communication. Or simply, group think results from a lack of accountability, top to bottom in an organization. That is quite a lot of bad cards to have dealt to you. I sure wouldn't go 'all-in' with that kind of poker hand.

Would a lack of accountability be an accurate diagnosis of i-i? In my view, it would, but my view is limited by my own experience. To speak generally, to be acccountable is to have a coherant and shared plan of action against which to measure progress, make decisions, and reflow responsibilities. Wilber's stated aversion to such plans is not the mark of high-level thought. To have a plan of action is to ground grandiose and romantic idealism in practical realities of rubber-meets-road limitations. To sustain organizational development, you have to operate in the everyday world, in a healthy and pragmatic fashion. And, to say the least, philosophers have never been known to very good at that kind of life, which is why we love them, hate them, remember them, and roll our eyes at them, sometimes all at once. That is also why we limit the attention we give their work.

Work such as Wilber's philosophy has unmistakable value at the very core of our being, thinking, and doing. But it likewise is only valuable is very small doses, almost as homeopathy. Theirs, by design, are not tempered voices. To live in today's pluralistic world, you live like a piano. Every note is a little out of tune, but there is still a unity, a contemporary harmony, in that ambiguity. You want to insist on the song of purity? Go, tell it on the mountain, and there, blow your own mountain horn, with as much gusto as you like. And you'll do it alone, where there is no such thing as accountability, or, for that matter, harmony.
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