Whose Line Was It Anyway? Individual vs. Shared Ownership of Ideas

David Straus’ book, How to Make Collaboration Work: Powerful Ways to Build Consensus, Solve Problems, and Make Decisions, is an excellent guide to the key principles and techniques of group facilitation and collective decision-making. It’s a great refresher (or introductory)  book for anyone who is (or pretends to be) a facilitator of groups of people… aka, teachers, trainers, instructors, coaches, mediators, managers, and yes, leaders too.

Lately I’ve been thinking about one particular idea that Straus mentions as a way to maximize the collaborative process, which is the de-personalization of ideas (p.135).  That is to say, for collaboration to work best, Straus suggests we let all ideas presented to a group become the property of the group, as opposed to remaining “so-and-so’s” idea.  He notes how, by stripping the idea of individual ownership, the group — and especially the originator of the idea — is able to work with the idea more objectively, accepting, rejecting or modifying it as necessary with minimal sense of personal/interpersonal attachment.

In other words, Straus wants to keep potentially valuable input alive while avoiding the Drowning Puppies problem.

I must admit I’m torn about this one.   On the one hand, the de-personalization of ideas is a part of my creative work ethic — once I make something, it’s not really mine anymore and I’m happy to see it used or discarded as needed. Yeah, it’s all because of those summers spent building elaborate sand structures on the beach and then flooding / stomping on them once complete… something like a Tibetan sand mandala ritual. As a result of that mispent youth, I’m okay with having any sort of creative work swept away… as I see it, there are always more ideas wherever it came from, and some of those ideas will be even better than the previous ones.  However, when the work it not swept away, but rather, preserved as an output yet stripped of personal credit, something seems wrong to me on a number of academic, emotional and ethical levels.

The Professor or Auditor who lives in my head likes to keep his data tagged with authorship information — maybe it’s an obsessive compulsive hoarding instinct, but there are practical benefits to good scholarship. The Sampling / Collage / Re-mix Artist in me feels similarly… sometimes it’s not so much what it is that I’m sampling but more about where it came from which creates the layers of meaning.  We’ll come back to that idea of what vs where… but in the meantime…

The Businessman in me gets concerned about what sounds like a socialist denial of individual property rights. What if depersonalizing ideas is just another Communist plot, a way to kill all pride of ownership and promulgate the enslavement of the able-bodied/minded in the service of a faceless kleptocracy?  Interestingly, the Hippie in me is similarly concerned — I’ve never been a fan of those legal waivers in employment agreements — the one that comes after the NDA — that assigns all one’s “inventions” to the organization one works for. In both cases — Businessman and Hippie — we recognize the demand that the individual submit to something that is “bigger than just one person” but we know it comes at a steep price — the diminishing (and often, denial) of individual achievement. No wonder that so many organizational environments are so demotivating; no wonder they fail to harness the full talents of their people, becoming dens of  mediocrity instead of meritocracy. Straus is walking a fine line when he asks individuals to suspend their personal “ownership” of their intellectual contributions to a collaborative group.

Now the Interwebs Evangelist in me strokes his soul-patch and points enthusiastically at the Open Source community, which manages to balance a sense of communal spirit with individual recognition and achievement.  Wikipedia keeps a permanent record of the smallest edits made by its countless contributing editors. Maybe we can side-step the issue thanks to the miracle salve of technology?

Suddenly, the Talmudist in me strokes his white beard and wants to compare texts. Our author, D. Straus, says that depersonalizing ideas leads to less friction and more harmony in collaboration.  Yet, according to R. Elazar in the name of R. Chanina (Megillah 15a), “One who says something in the name of its speaker brings redemption to the world.” So, how does Straus reconcile this?  Ah, but this statement in Megillah is not exactly about collaboration… in fact, it’s more about anti-collaboration. It is derived through the citation: “And Esther said in the name of Mordecai,” (Esther 2:22), which refers to when the heroine of that eponymous story (Esther) relayed information about collaborators plotting to assassinate the king. Esther noted the source of the tip-off (Mordecai) to the authorities, and this little detail — the citation of the source — turns out to be the pivot-point of the story, the thing that helps turn the tide against the villain of the story and lead to victory for the protagonists. Esther saves the day by not taking personal credit for an idea that wasn’t hers… and by giving kudos to the source… and it’s done within the context of a hierarchical order, a system of authority. Naming one’s source is more than just an academic / obsessive compulsive / warm-and-fuzzy factor: it’s also about establishing credibility. Within a heirarchical system (e.g. a king’s court, a legal system, most organizations) it’s not so much what was said as much as who (or where) it came from, which determines how we interpret it.   When Straus asks us to de-personalize ideas in a collaborative discussion, he wants to level the field between players who may wield more social authority or personal influence.

That said, can one ever really take out the influence of positional power, in a collaborative discussion?

Well, I guess that’s why we hire (or pretend to hire) facilitators.


About danspira

My blog is at: http://danspira.com. My face in real life appears at a higher resolution, although I do feel pixelated sometimes.

Posted on March 8, 2012, in Collaboration, Learning, Management, Social Media and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. “Certain authors, speaking of their works, say, ‘My book,’ ‘My commentary,’ ‘My history,’ etc.

    They resemble middle-class people who have a house of their own, and always have ‘My house’ on their tongue.

    They would do better to say, ‘Our book,’ ‘Our commentary,’ ‘Our history,’ etc., because there is in them usually more of other people’s than their own.”

    – Blaise Pascal

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