GroupThink, Obama’s Presidency – New Yorker Digest

Jan. 30, 2012

Jan. 30, 2012Just

Just finished reading the latest issue of New Yorker. Really enjoyed two articles in particular.

1. Groupthink by – The brainstorming myth

First half of the article explained why brainstorming (w/o criticism) doesn’t work, but brainstorming with debate does.

Even when alternative views are clearly wrong, being exposed to them still expands our creative potential.  In a way, the power of dissent is the power of surprise.  After hearing someone shout out an errant answer, we work to understand it, which causes us to reassess our initial assumptions and try out new perspectives.  “Authentic dissent can be difficult, but it’s always invigorating,” Nemeth says. “It wakes us right up.”

The 2nd half is about how buildings make a group more creative. Examples including Pixar building designed by Jobs, and Building 20 of MIT.

The lesson of Building 20 is that when the composition of the group is right — enough people with different perspectives running into one another in unpredictable ways — the group dynamic will take care of itself.  All these errant discussions add up.  In fact, they may even be the most essential part of the creative process.  Although such conersations will occasionally be unpleasant–not everyone is always in the mood for small talk or criticism –that doesn’t mean that they can be avoided.  The most creative spaces are those which hurl us together. It is the human friction that makes the sparks.

2. The Obama Memos by Ryan Lizza, The making of a post-post-partisan Presidency.

Obama was learning the same lesson of many previous occupants of the Oval Office: he didn’t have the power that one might think he had. Harry Truman, one in a long line of Commanders-in-Chief frustrated by the limits of the office, once complained that the President “has to take all sorts of abuse from liars and demagogues. . . . The people can never understand why the President does not use his supposedly great power to make ’em behave. Well, all the President is, is a glorified public relations man who spends his time flattering, kissing and kicking people to get them to do what they are supposed to do anyway.

Obama didn’t remake Washington. But his first two years stand as one of the most successful legislative periods in modern history. Among other achievements, he has saved the economy from depression, passed universal health care, and reformed Wall Street. Along the way, Obama may have changed his mind about his 2008 critique of Hillary Clinton. “Working the system, not changing it” and being “consumed with beating” Republicans “rather than unifying the country and building consensus to get things done” do not seem like such bad strategies for success after all.

“Genius…, is supremely normal.”

“The normal is what you find but rarely. The normal is an ideal. It is a picture that one fabricates of the average characteristics of men, and to find them all in a single man is hardly to be expected.

“It seems to me that what makes genius is the combination of natural gifts for creation with an idiosyncrasy that enables its possessor to see the world personally in the highest degree, and yet with such catholicity that his appeal is not to this type of man or to that type, but to all men. His private world is that of common men, but ampler and more pithy. His communication is universal, and though men may not be able to tell exactly what it signifies that they feel that it is important. He is supremely normal.

–W. Somerset Maugham, “The Summing Up”

I read Maugham’s little autobiography of a book “The Summing Up” in early 2009. The quote above struck me as unique and amusing. Late 2011, when i was reading Jobs biography, i found myself kept on returning to this quote.

The world’s perception of Apple’s recent success (starting with ipod) was due to Jobs’ design genius, and his consideration for his users. But reading the biography, one realized that is a lie. Jobs couldn’t care less about users. 99.9% of us are nothing but moron’s in Jobs mind anyways. So how do we explain this conflict of superb received design and Jobs condescension of common men?

The only explanation i can think of is that Jobs wasn’t designing for the users. He was designing for himself, period. And it just happened, his taste has the mass appealof a genius. Using Maugham’s metaphor, most of us have our own little quirks. What we like don’t translate to what most others will like. But Jobs happened to have the “appeal that is not to this type of man or to that type, but to all men.”

On top of that genius, Jobs is probably the most persuasive deal maker silicon valley has ever seen. iPod, even with its gorgeous design and superb craftsmanship, would have still failed if Jobs weren’t able to secure those deals with record companies. That kind of deal making is what makes Apple stand out among all other tech companies.

The rumored Apple TV would be a good case to watch. I dont’ doubt Apple has the technical ability and design talent to make their TV a beauty. But the key is whether they can make the required deals with media companies like Jobs did for iPod.

Oh yeah, and the “rebel” image Jobs put up with the 1984 Superbowl commercial? That’s a lie, too. Jobs was probably the biggest control freak who won’t be out-controlled by anyone else. So if you think the deal he signed with carrier is meant to liberating the users, think again. Users are just being locked up by Apple instead of carriers. Pick your prison. But don’t’ delude yourself thinking you are free.

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