Max Yasgur, the farmer who hosted woodstock, gave a speech on the third day of the concert. It’s mostly about the bathrooms, but one line stuck with me:

This is the largest group of people ever assembled in one place.

Begging the question, once you have all those people what do you do with them? When are large groups capable of more than small groups?

In armies and assembly lines scale matters, but for certain kinds of cognitive work, more isn’t immediately better. Fred Brooks’ mythical man month book, for example, is about this.

Evolutionary biology has concepts like superorganism and holobiont to describe the ways in which separate individuals can coordinate to achieve results beyond what any one of them could do alone. In the distant past humans were pretty good at coordination when we hunted in small bands, stamped out gears on a line, or delivered mail.

Recently our problem space has shifted from physical problems to cognitive ones, and scaleup has been iffy at best. Even as our physical problems are being left to our machines, we’re still applying management assumptions from the white-collar boom of the 1950s.

‘Flat org tools’, slack in particular, are one alternative to traditional management in cognitive orgs. That means slack has somehow become the corpus callosum for the class of group mind we call the 21st century company.

What is a group mind

A mind that is disconnectable and reconnectable. A brain, for example, is fully physically connected all the time and doesn’t qualify.

It doesn’t need to be ‘as conscious’ as a whole as the individual pieces. But at minimum, to qualify as a combined entity rather than a bucket of individuals, a group mind should be able to:

  1. Enforce priorities (top down) that are relatively consistent over time.
  2. Update priorities (bottom up / random). You can call this creativity if you like; in a singular brain the default mode network handles it.
  3. Chunk out work so that between syncs, mental labor can be parallelized.

The goal is to:

  • Do cognitive work faster than any individual could, even if the speedup is less than linear
  • Ideally: solve in finite time problems too large for one individual given infinite time

Higher brain functions don’t distribute well

Think of a brain, a lump of jelly connecting all the senses. Now think of the bird’s nest soup of cords connecting your TV to your VCR. Now think of a brain again.

Even if the eyes are the window to the soul, the brain is an unlikely seat. Somehow when evolution took on the task of integrating the senses, the intractable knot behind the VCR is where self-awareness took root. But it makes sense because that knot is where senses are transformed into action. Add more senses, and you need to weigh the stimuli, and now we’re talking about some processing power.

‘Higher functions’ come into play as that sensory integration becomes more complicated. Now you need things like arousal, attention, memory and planning to take maximum advantage of the information coming in.

How do natural group minds apply these higher functions across groups? The beehive uses its waggle dance to update gatherers with information from scouts, slaving the foraging power of the hive to the genetic destiny of the one lucky queen.

slack is something else – totally flat, every voice equally loud. It’s less like a hive and more like a school of fish, a flock of birds, or most tellingly, a herd.

Herds are amazing to watch. Motion ripples through them at the speed of the senses, but what’s transmitting isn’t the initial information. Whatever the horse on the outside sees that makes it change direction or become frightened, it’s that reaction that gets transmitted, not the initial input.

Hives do a better job of distributing cognitive work than herds (not that either one is well suited for it). The herd doesn’t parallelize attention. Sound familiar? It should – this is a lot like slack.

A herd is flat

The IQ of a mob is the IQ of its dumbest member divided by the number of mobsters – T. Pratchett

slack flattens companies, that’s why people adopt it. In practice I think ‘flat’ means that managers are no longer the information nexus for work, no longer a buffer for urgency and reassigning work, and no longer involved in prioritization and value comparison.

In brain terms, slack is a dangerous mix of white matter and adrenaline. It’s communication fibers that interrupt what you were doing, without the middle layers of neurology that filter out the noise.

Bear in mind the brain is not flat – neurons are arranged hierarchically and the upper layers will silence the lower layers to keep things calm and get work done. The functional name for this is attention. Without strong attentional control, a group mind is doing its level best to have the same productivity as a singular. Everything becomes a competition won by loudness.

In brains, all that yummy cortex justifies its metabolic salary by quieting down the sensory stuff below:

Our ability to focus attention on task-relevant information and ignore distractions is reflected by differential enhancement and suppression of neural activity in sensory cortex (i.e., top-down modulation).

Such selective, goal-directed modulation of activity may be intimately related to memory, such that the focus of attention biases the likelihood of successfully maintaining relevant information by limiting interference from irrelevant stimuli.

(from Neural suppression of irrelevant information underlies optimal working memory performance)

Sein und zeit

Companies need to:

  • Do multiple things at once i.e. multitask
  • Stay on task i.e. don’t multitask and don’t react too quickly to change
  • Change projects or strategy when indicated by a change in conditions, i.e. react quickly to change

If it seems like these three goals are at odds, you’re right – that’s why attention and memory are so difficult even in an individual brain. Even healthy teams can at times feel totally schizophrenic.

A successful group mind would filter and meter new information to control how many workers are affected by it, to determine impact and urgency before shouting. ‘Wait and see’. Partition information through space (i.e. subgroups of workers) and time.

But slack has no memory, defined as the automatic reuse of past information to inform present action. If you want to define memory as slack’s huge archive of chat, your definition will include compost heaps and landfills. I have a different word for that. And slack doesn’t have spatial partitions between individuals on the same team; they’re all in the same rooms.

slack-based group minds therefore can’t afford to adopt a ‘wait and see’ strategy ever. On slack the choice is ‘wait OR see’. There is only the now.