Steven: 'She's married.'
Mike: 'Are we actually sourcing this in China? That's fantastic. I only picked Steven for that.'
On a bright afternoon in early March I sat in the Red Stripe office. There were only three members of the team there. (Often two of them would go downstairs to the canteen to talk without disturbing the others and sometimes Ludwig would have a long, but working, weekend in Berlin with his family.)
There was a general sense of absorption but not urgency. It struck me as remarkable just how much can be done without leaving a computer. So much, in fact, that I think we sometimes forget that there is still work that can't be done in front of a computer. It was more noticeable to me as I was always without a computer, writing with a pen on a piece of paper.
Stewart's main excitement that afternoon was a conversation on Skype with a designer in China. It sounded, apparently, as if she were in the same room. He was momentarily incensed, whilst reflecting on the conversation, that we accept such poor quality telephony as natural. But he's young and doesn't remember when STD meant Subscriber Trunk Dialling or the postmistress in Kinlochspelvie who used to listen in to every call to that end of the Isle of Mull.
That lunchtime and that afternoon a serious question was crystallising about the process. These fine minds had, between them, come up with a process that allowed little room for their intuition or their imagination or their creativity. They recognised this. Joanna noddingly reported a conversation with Tom, in which he had identified that they were just 'funnelling and analysing' without any real creative input.
They were using vox pop - more properly, crowdsourcing - to look for ideas. The team had been divided down the middle about whether this was a good idea and had, in the end, decided to try crowdsourcing not out of laziness or fear of not being creative enough themselves, but because, in Business 2.0, that's what you ought to do. It was also an opportunity to work together and get to know each other as a team on a demanding and time-sensitive exercise - a kind of dummy run for the whole project. As Mike said in his final report:
Some people had thought that our public call for ideas would yield the killer idea. Others thought that they had it already. And the rest thought that a decent dose of inspirational brainstorming would be needed.
What, I wondered, were the odds of the interested world at large coming up with a better idea than the six of them locked in a room brainstorming, discussing and sharing ideas? In any case, I was now watching the team designing a form and a process for collecting and evaluating other people's ideas. I still wondered if they didn't fully trust themselves. Could a babushka have persuaded them to trust themselves? Of course, it's more of a personal gamble if they rely on their own ideas rather than on the collective wisdom of Economist readers. If the latter don't come up with the goods, then how could the team have been expected to do any better themselves? But, then again, the average Economist reader probably gave the question five minutes' thought before writing a reply. (Actually, the average Economist reader didn't reply at all.)
The implications were surely significant - remembering that one of Mike's stated intentions was to come up with a process that the Economist Group could replicate. There's now no way of knowing whether the team could have done as well or better on their own. I also wonder what would have happened if one of the team had come up with an idea so shockingly inventive and so devilishly ingenious that the rest of the team had all gasped, with one voice, 'Let's do it.'
Much the same questions were raised when the team started looking at how to evaluate the ideas that they would receive. Tom was responsible for working out a process for doing this and, one day, wearing a yellow tee-shirt, he went round the room discussing his thoughts so far with each member of the team individually. (He tended to do this more than the others, who were more inclined to call a brief meeting of the whole team.)
Coming to Joanna, I heard her ask him, 'Do we go for ideas that excite everybody, or do we group them to see that 50% are to do with timeliness or world peace?' Tom answered saying he felt they would group them, do more research, do a presentation on each main idea group and ask a list of standard questions, like 'how disruptive is this technology?' and 'how do people do it now?'. He felt that each presentation should be made to the group as a whole, which would then split into sub-groups of two to discuss the presentation, before reassembling for further discussion.
At the end of their discussion Joanna asked, 'Is that some help? Is that the kind of feedback you need?' (I only once heard anyone else say such a thing.) Was her question the product of a dominant feeling function [Myers-Briggs]? Of her being the only woman? Of her lack of assurance about her technical knowledge? Of her sophisticated teamworking skills?
In the end, unsurprisingly, they were less scientific than Tom had imagined at the outset and the issue became one of finding an idea that all the team members could get behind wholeheartedly. For that they needed Javier's help.
What are the odds of the interested world at large coming up with a better idea than a small group of fine minds brainstorming, discussing and sharing ideas and purposefully dedicated to finding the best one?
Loch Buie photo: Seaview Bed & Breakfast, Isle of Mull