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Chapter 1. Decisions, Decisions > Risks of Mediocrity

Risks of Mediocrity

In the dark ages, when I was first learning about management and group dynamics at M.I.T.'s Sloan School, much study and concern were focused on supposed defects of group problem solving and decision making, particularly the effects of the so-called risky shift and the counter-tendency of groups to pull toward a mediocre mean. In those conservative days, even democratically minded managers worried more about the risky-shift than about creeping mediocrity. The upheavals of the 1970s lay ahead, and groupthink was the zeitgeist.

According to the research, collective decisions often seemed to be skewed toward more risky alternatives than would be selected by members deciding independently. If this model applied to programming, we would expect groups to produce software that used more exotic data structures or more unconventional algorithms or more obscure language features. However, other research on group dynamics seemed to show that groups had a leveling effect on problem solving and decision making that reduced results to a kind of lowest common denominator of individual contributions and abilities. Either way, the lone decision maker seemed to have an edge.


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