Safety in Numbers?

by francine Hardaway on December 12, 2002

We are inclined to think that genuine innovators are loners, that they do not need the social reinforcement the rest of us crave. But that’s not how it works… In his book ‘The Sociology of Philosophies,’ Randall Collins finds in all of known history only three major thinkers who appeared on the scene by themselves: the first-century Taoist metaphysician Wang Ch’ung, the fourteenth-century Zen mystic Bassui Tokusho, and the fourteenth-century Arabic philosopher Ibn Khaldun. Everyone else who mattered was part of a movement, a school, a band of followers and disciples and mentors and rivals and friends who saw each other all the time and had long arguments over coffee and slept with one another’s spouses. ” — Malcolm Gladwell

In the same article by Malcolm Gladwell that I quoted from above (a book review from last week’s “New Yorker”), Gladwell points out that “one of the peculiar features of group dynamics is that clusters of people will come to decisions that are far more extreme than any individual member would have come to on his own. People compete with each other and egg each other on, showboat and grandstand; and along the way they often lose sight of what they truly believed when the meeting began. Typically, this is considered a bad thing, because it means that groups formed explicitly to find middle ground often end up someplace far away. But at times this quality turns out to be tremendously productive, because, after all, losing sight of what you truly believed when the meeting began is one way of defining innovation.”

I love this point. Pushed to its extremes, it’s not unrelated to crowd psychology, which convinced on some perfectly nice Columbus Ohioans to rip up their city last month just because they got into the Fiesta Bowl. But anywhere along the path to that kind of behavior, a support system, salon, cult, cirle — whatever–can be tremendously effective in making something happen.

There’s always strength, as well as safety, in numbers.

The numbers hypothesis comes up again and again in discussions of innovation. Many innovation theorists believe that only when there are several things happening at once, creating a context, will true innovation occur. The example given of this is always Silicon Valley, where the Stanford professors, the venture capitalists, and the young people willing to work long hours have produced one of the outstanding innovation economies of world history. To get something to happen, the innovation theorists say, a context has to be created. That context could be the monastery that preserved literacy during the Middle Ages, the universities that flourished during the Renaissance, the Romantic poets, the Bloomsbury Group, the Haight-Ashbury, or even the Soprano family.

Corporations trying to encourage innovation go to great lengths to create that context: brainstorming sessions, Outward Bound excursions, team-building exercises, intrapreneurship programs. But true innovation, it seems to me, is iterative, and takes place over a longer period of time than just a couple of hours, weeks, or even years. The innovation that comes out of great universities is built upon decades of shared experience between students, faculty, friends, and colleagues.

So then the question becomes whether we can continue to innovate now that we live in cyberspace. Are online communities any better (or worse) at fostering innovation than actual communities have been? Can they bring together the multiple factors necessary for true innovation?

To experiment with this, I have already ordered my copy of The Simms Online, which launches December 17. While The Simms Online is already slated to be the most popular online game in history, for me it will have another function. I’ll be playing it to see whether online collaboration can produce true social innovation. Will we fashion a better society sitting at the computer than we have now?

Perhaps you want to order one so we can find out together:-)

P.S. My Entrepreneurship class is over, and I have learned a great deal from it. (Yes, I was the teacher, but so what…) Among other things, it allowed me to collate my thoughts around the various topics every entrepreneur needs to know: market research, business plans, finance, marketing, building a team, and so on. Next year, I’ll re-purpose some of that thinking into “The Outside World,” our monthly subscription e-zine. If you wish to sign up to receive it, go to It’s $99 a year: a bargain. In the mean time, I will continue this general philosophical weekly meander that I’ve been doing for four years, but it will be even less useful than it has been in the past :-)

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