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Dear Josh: Should Creative Teams Seek Consensus At All Costs?

Joshua Wolf Shenk, author of Powers of Two: Seeking the Essence of Innovation in Creative Pairs, offers advice on forging great creative relationships. Today: consensus and creativity.

Dear Josh: Should Creative Teams Seek Consensus At All Costs?
[Image: Flickr user Jaskirat Singh Bawa]

From August 4 to 8, Fast Company is hosting the Creative Counselor, who offers advice on how to forge and maintain great creative relationships. The Counselor, aka Joshua Wolf Shenk, is the author of the new book, Powers of Two: Seeking the Essence of Innovation in Creative Pairs. He’s spent five years studying the most famous and productive creative partnerships, from John Lennon and Paul McCartney to Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak to Marie and Pierre Curie, comparing the common points of these stories with the latest in science and psychology. And now, he’s here to help you make the most of your creative collaboration.

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Here, a simple but key question about the (maybe misguided?) idea of seeking consensus in the creative process.

Dear Josh,
My company expects consensus–from a wide variety of players across many departments–to drive product decisions. Is that the right model?
Yours,
Consensus Curious

Dear CC,

Nope. But it’s a telling mistake. With all the excitement about networks these days, companies go to extremes in the name of collaboration–knocking down walls to eliminate private space, insisting on team processes for work that benefits from solitude, and—to the point here–ignoring basic social rules in the name of a pro-social atmosphere. (Susan Cain calls this the “New Groupthink,” and I share much of her critique).

To say that everyone ought to feel invested in a decision and that, therefore, you’re going to seek consensus for product decisions, is like saying that everyone needs more sunshine, so you’re going to work entirely outdoors. Of course people need sunshine and shelter. And people need to be invested–but they also need to know their role.

And someone has to take charge. Even in pairs, full democracy is a tough model. Drill down into inter-personal dynamics of any duo and you’ll find that one person makes the call more often than the other—or at least (a crucial distinction) reserves that right. With Lennon and McCartney, Paul was like a prime minister of old; he ran the shop day to day. But John was the king. When he wanted to step in, he did, and he always got his way. I saw the same model made explicit with the co-founders of a renewable energy company I interviewed. The buck stopped with the CEO, Quayle Hodek, but his ostensible deputy, Kris Lotlikar, actually makes most of the calls day to day.

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The bigger the group, the more leadership needs to be clear. The literature on the underperformance of business teams is staggering. Richard Hackman and his colleagues surveyed 120 top teams around the world, and they found that, fewer than 10 percent of the people involved could even agree who was on the team, let alone just what they were there to do. (And these were senior executives.) “Having a team,” Hackman told the Harvard Business Review, “is often worse than having no team at all.”

Similarly, Mike Myatt calls consensus the “silent killer” of teams. He writes: “Can you imagine the manager of a Major League Baseball team letting the players determine how the line-up card will be filled out? How about a drill sergeant asking privates for their opinions on the best way to train?” Consensus decisions are often lame, if they get made at all.

Looking at pairs can help sharpen focus on some of the key questions. How do you combine clarity about power alongside a sense of mutual authority? How do leaders take the reins without being dictatorial? It reminds me of some tape I heard once of Bruce Springsteen rehearsing with the E Street Band, and you hear one of the guys refer to him as the “boss”–and it’s clearly not an entirely affectionate name, but there’s a sense of fun in their tone. Everyone in a room should know, at bottom, who the boss is. But it should help, not hinder, their ability to play.

Warmly Yours,

The Creative Counselor

Questions for the creative counselor? Leave in the comments below or email tiezzi@fastcompany.com.

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Read more from the Creative Counselor here and here.

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