Alex Pentland on idea flow, diversity, and contrarians

It’s not the strategies that have been most successful that you want to follow; it’s the strategies that will be most successful that you have to find.

Alex Pentland is perhaps the one person that I am most likely to agree with regarding social motivations. In a recent Wired column (Why Startups Should Steal Ideas and Hire Weirdos) he wrote,

We all sail in a stream of ideas, ideas that are the examples and stories of the peers who surround us; exposure to this stream shapes our habits and beliefs. We can resist the flow if we try, and even choose to row to another stream, but most of our behavior is shaped by the ideas we are exposed to. The idea flow within these streams binds us together into a sort of collective intelligence, one comprised of the shared learning of our peers.

The continual exploratory behavior of humans is a quick learning process that is guided by apparent popularity among peers. In contrast, adoption of habits and preferences is a slow process that requires repeated exposure and perceptual validation within a community of peers. Our social world consists of the rush and excitement of new ideas harvested through exploration, and then the quieter and slower process of engaging with peers in order to winnow through those ideas, to determine which should be converted into personal habits and social norms.

The most creative people are found in loose networks of creatives, who are all participating in idea flow of the sort that Pentland is talking about.

In a connected world, the most important decision is who to follow. And one measure to use when evaluating a possible following is idea flow: how many innovative ideas are they generating, and what proportion of those do other creative people find intriguing?

In that same piece, Pentland supports the idea that business has to accept a much higher level of dissensus and diversity. About the first, he advocates finding contrarians who can resist the conservative consensus-building latent in social systems:

When people are behaving independently of their social learning, it’s likely that they have independent information and that they believe in that information enough to fight the effects of social influence. Find as many of these “wise guys” as possible … and learn from them.

And about the power of diversity:

When everyone is going in the same direction, then it’s a good bet that there isn’t enough diversity in your information and idea sources, and you should explore further. A big danger of social learning is groupthink. To avoid groupthink and echo chambers, you have to compare what the social learning suggests with what isolated individuals (who have only external information sources) are doing. If the so-called common sense from social learning is just an overconfident version of what isolated people think, then you’re likely in a groupthink or echo chamber situation. In this case, a surprisingly good strategy is to bet against the common sense.

Consider that a great deal of the energy expended in ‘culture building’ is actually trying to cram a non-diverse, consensus worldview and mindset down the group’s throats, and actively culling out those that don’t ‘fit in’ (see Is ‘cultural fit’ a cop out? In general, yes).

As I have said before, the wisest approach in a time of rapid change is to actively take on more risk, and one technique is to try parallel experiments based on competing premises about the near future:

But it is also important to diversify by considering more than one strategy at a time, because as our environment changes, the old strategies stop working and new strategies take the lead. Therefore, it’s not the strategies that have been most successful that you want to follow; it’s the strategies that will be most successful that you have to find.

Counterintuitively, by accepting dissent, and encouraging contrarian thinking to pursue non-convergent paths toward different futures, the company builds resilience and accelerates learning.

Originally published at on 9 February 2014.

Written by

Founder, Work Futures. Editor, GigaOm. My obsession is the ecology of work, and the anthropology of the future.

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