Toward assembling a committee, Part 2

January 8, 2007

Small is good
Small can be good when it comes to collaborations.

If creativity is a two part process:

1) generating lots of ideas, and
2) recognizing and going with the best ones,

then we begin to see where committees and collaborations can go wrong. Large groups of people, by definition, are going to produce more ideas than small groups, but for a given problem faced, you will have a law of diminishing returns. You can’t continue to double the number of ideas by doubling the number of group members.

Optimum group size for creativity

Its the recognition of good ideas, though, that is the real problem. Granted, small numbers of people can act as a reality check on any one person’s vision. But big groups have trouble coming to any consensus, and when they do, it tends to favor the lowest common denominator or the status quo. Call it the “buddies leaving the bar and trying to decide what restaurant to go” effect. Or imagine your family going to rent a video for the evening.

So if we assume that the collection of good ideas is a product of their generation and recognition, we find that the optimum group size is 1) small and 2) particularly sensitive to the recognition curve. How do we apply this? When putting together a committee or a collaboration…

Think small groups: consider every new person, not just as another brain to pick, but as a possible hindrance in coming to a solution.

Think small egos: you want folks who are interested in recognizing and promoting the best solution, not necessarily their solution.

Think early investment for big returns: the more important the task (i.e., overseeing your PhD) the more research you do. Who gets along with who? Who always wants to be included, and is sensitive to slights, real or imagined? What role will each play?

Think scheduling: Nothing beats a face to face conversation, and even instant messaging requires everybody to be at their computers with broadband access at the same time. Every new person you add to your group eats away at the ability to bring folks together. And that was the whole point, right?