Web dev at the end of the world, from Hveragerði, Iceland

Nobody gives a hoot about groupthink

How tech is breaking collaboration

People want what’s bad for them; managers want what’s bad for the organisation.

Many in software development like to pretend that management is an elite kind of human being. The kind who does their job every day with a laser focus on rational organisational improvement. People who come in every day and work with an inhuman disregard for their career and standing. After all, the root cause of all software flaws lies in the code and coders, right?

Unfortunately, the buck always stops at management. And, most of the time, a person can only care so much about the organisation as a whole.

In the immortal words of Deming:

Nobody gives a hoot about profits.

A recurring problem specific to software development is that many of the popular features that people keep asking for have a detrimental effect on the quality of their actual work.

Namely: managers and stakeholders frequently prioritise fashion and ‘being current’ over objective improvements in software quality or user experience. Because those are the priorities of those who buy software.

Two relatively common ‘fashions’ today are real-time collaboration and shared data repositories of one kind or another.

Both increase productivity in the naive sense. We work more; everybody is more active; the group feels more cohesive.

The downside is that they also both tend to reduce the quality of the work and increase busywork.

Real-time collaboration

One of the oldest observed phenomena in psychology is groupthink and other forms of group influence on behaviour and decision-making.

A common implementation style for real-time collaboration is the Google Docs model:

  • The list of those present in the document is visible to all collaborators.
  • Everybody’s current activity is visible to all.
  • Everybody’s notes are visible to all, with attribution
  • Each person’s contribution is generally identifiable.

The consequences of this design should be obvious. The group’s opinion will converge on that of the highest authority present.

As soon as an authority of any kind makes their opinion known, the group will shift in that direction. Even the most rational will tweak their responses after that. After all, who wants to risk going up against an authority? Interns will hesitate to comment. All objections will be a little bit more qualified or toned down.

Generally speaking, if you are writing a document and want to get the most out of a group’s feedback, each contributor should be able to form their opinions independently and give their responses without fear of social or community repercussions.

It’s one of the basic precepts of the book The Wisdom of Crowds, but it applies to any context where you want to leverage the expertise of a heterogeneous group.

This style of collaboration also increases busywork: everything is moving and changing everywhere all the time. Comments fly by. You change what you’re writing half a dozen times in response to what appears. You write a series of notes, noticing later that six other people said the same thing on another page and that somebody added three pages to that same effect towards the end.

Real-time is exciting because it’s busy, much busier than any other form of online collaboration.

But stakeholders never ask for collaboration features based on the dynamic aggregation of independent contributions. Cause that isn’t the fashion. Google’s crap is the fashion. So, we get real-time collaboration and busywork everywhere.

Shared data repositories

Another Google-inspired user experience atrocity that has become commonplace is the shared drive.

Did you know that once-upon-a-time Information Architecture was considered a specialised field of study? Did you know that organising information is considered such a complicated endeavour that there is a massive field dedicated to it?

Organising information so that it’s easy for a group of people to find the documents they need is very hard.

Not that you’d know it from how most companies work. Almost everybody builds their internal library of documents as an improvised layer of garbage and weeds. Like a junkyard, converted to a garden, that overgrew with weeds, and was converted back to a junkyard. If you’re extremely unlucky, one of your employees will be obsessive-compulsive enough to restructure everything. They’ll clean the place up and reorganise it in a manner that makes sense to them. They’ll transform an inscrutable multi-layered archaeological site into a maze. Your shared drive is now a labyrinth made of trash and random horticultural curiosities.

Let’s fix it with a wiki! (Yay. Yet another layer of opinions and obfuscation.)

You could hire somebody with the expertise to organise everything but then you’d miss out on the constant busywork and sense of camaraderie created by a hellscape of abandoned Google Drive folders.

The alternative is to solve it the same way we did with email: shared data, individual organisation.

You don’t need to know how your colleagues organise their email. You only need to know that they get it and respond. The same applies to most work documents. In Personal Information Management (PIM) this is often called “the user-subjective approach”.

From The Science of Managing Our Digital Stuff by Bergman and Whittaker:

Because information consumer differ from each other in multiple ways, the information professional is restricted to exploiting only public (i.e. user-independent) attributes when organizing information. PIM systems, in contrast, are unique in that the person who stores the information and decides on its organization is the same as the person who later retrieves it. (p. 182)


An early PIM study demonstrated the critical role of subjective attributes, inspiring the development of the user-subjective approach. Kwasnick (1991) analyzed the descriptions of eight faculty members who were asked to describe how they organize their personal documents. She found that a minority (30 percent) of the attributes were document-related (e.g. author, form, topic, title). In contrast the majority (70 percent) related to the interactions between the user and the information in the document, in particular how the user perceived and acted upon that information (e.g., situational attributes, disposition, time, cognitive state). Thus, users base their natural organization more on subjective attributes than on general public ones.

If you ever wondered why so many people use their email to organise all of their work, this is why. It’s the only user-subjective information management tool at their disposal.

Most companies would benefit from standardising on a user-subjective information management system but they don’t. Nobody asks for this kind of system so what we get are Google Drives, Dropboxes, shared Notion projects, or weed-like shared Roam spaces.

Meanwhile, individuals cope by overloading their email or by clinging onto software like Zotero or nvAlt that looked ancient even when it was new. Some will just manage copies of everything in their private Dropboxes. Others will cling to DEVONThink for dear life.

Nobody expects their employer to ask for or provide a tool that genuinely works. Because that never happens. To return to the Deming quote at the start:

Nobody gives a hoot about profits.

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