I’ve often contended – and about this I’m sure – that most people are sharp and capable. It’s only on this foundation that a prosperous and dynamic culture like America’s would be – could be – possible.
Whitewater’s major public institutions – her city government, school district, and local university – produce this unexpected result: although members of the government are certainly also sharp and capable individually, they often produce collectively a product that’s beneath their individual abilities or that of other competitive Americans.
There’s no doubt that many members of these public institutions are intelligent, educated, and capable on their own.
(There is one exception worth noting: the high-level leadership that former Chancellor Telfer gathered at UW-Whitewater is notably weak or troubled, exhibits a tendency toward act utilitarianism, and almost certainly faces greater disappointments ahead. UW-Whitewater would have done better by picking almost any administrative leadership team than the one it did. The worst is likely yet to come for – and from – that group. A person of even moderate sense would stand as far from that upper echelon as possible.)
Yet, for the Whitewater School Board, or Common Council, do you not see plentiful talent?
I’m convinced that if one sat across the table from many of the elected or appointed leaders of these public bodies, just one-at-a-time, one would find capable and intelligent interlocutors who could easily hold their own in discussion and debate. I’ve no doubt if it.
And yet, and yet, place those talented people together as a collective, and they produce so much less than their individual abilities would cause one to expect to produce. I’ve no doubt of this, either. Some of the collectively-produced projects in the city are simply ill-considered, counter-productive, or deleterious.
This odd result, in which talented individuals produce a collective result that’s less than a level of their individual abilities, is truly perplexing.
The whole should be more than the sum of the parts, that is, a true synergy.
Instead, for these public bodies, the result often seems to be a net loss in quality and accomplishment over that of individual members.
I’ve no certain explanation for this, although over the years many people have suggested possible causes.
There is, however, a solution: each of these bodies could and should establish a deliberate, formal approach in which some of their talented members take a contrary position to the majority view, to test theories and projects. In planning and debate, one would be left with (1) a group that advocated an approach and (2) those who intentionally took a contrary view to test the strength of that approach. (That would be something like a Tenth Man Principle.)
This should be a serious, deliberate, formal process. (A few scattered questions at a meeting, sometimes at the last-minute, is not a serious, deliberate, formal process. It’s a start, even sometimes a good start, but a start isn’t enough.)
A formal process of inquiry would produce much better work than government does presently.
Given the politics of Whitewater now, it’s much better – for clarity of thinking – to be outside a collective that produces work below the standard of its members or the community. To trade individual clarity for collective confusion is a foolish trade. An individual can do better than an addled collective.
Collective quality, however, can easily be improved through a formal, established process of questioning and inquiry.