THE BLOG
02/25/2014 06:35 am ET | Updated Apr 27, 2014

ON HUMAN COLLABORATION

Are groups good for us?

The disciple asks, "Buddha, what do heaven and hell look like?"

Buddha smiles and escorts her to hell. At first it doesn't look too bad. People are seated along long tables laden with mouth-watering delicacies. But with chopsticks a metre long tied to their hands, nobody can get the food close enough to their mouth to eat. Hungry and frustrated, they quarrel.

Buddha then takes the disciple to heaven. At first sight the picture is identical - tables laden with tempting food. But here the people are smiling. They are using the chopsticks to feed each other. In large and small groups, they cooperate to achieve a common purpose.

Collaboration in Groups

By this measure, human life is more heavenly than hellish. From the earliest times progress has been driven by success in groups - from the hunting party to the intricately choreographed teams of scientists at CERN, the nuclear research institute near Geneva, smashing atoms to glimpse the fabric of the universe.

Groups - "hubs" in network-speak - are the main places and the main means for human collaboration. The deepest and most fruitful forms of cooperation - emotional, social and economic - take place in groups with strong structured relationships - in families, groups of friends, and work groups. There is an ingrained instinct for human collaboration that can usually only be satisfied in group working.

Yet there is one huge change that has happened in the past 250 years - a very short time in terms of human adaptation - without us realizing it.

Proliferation of Hubs

In the Stone Age, people experienced just two or three hubs - the family, the tribe, and (for men only) the hunting party. When "agriculture" replaced nomadic hunting, around 9000 BC, this made little difference to the number of hubs - for most people there were still only the family, the tribe, the farm, and possibly a market. Typically, the hubs did not change over the course of a lifetime. Only a very thin layer of society - explorers, traders, nobles and priests - experienced a life with more than three or four groups.

Then came the Industrial Revolution. Ordinary people began to move into the modern world - the cosmopolitan orbit of cities, schools, colleges, multiple jobs in a career, travel and migration, clubs, organized leisure activities, voluntary groups, and different friendship groups that could be freely adopted and might be quite different from those of one's parents. People began to roam - they came across groups they never knew existed. And as time has gone on, this trend has become ever stronger.

There has been a huge increase in the number and choice of hubs in our lives. Think of all the groups you have experienced - the family into which you were born; the family you may have co-created through marriage; your different groups of friends; your schools and colleges; your jobs; the sports clubs, societies or hobby groups; social or volunteer groups; and other affinity groups or collections of people with whom you've socialized. Cities are great hubs containing a multitude of mini-hubs. Cyberspace creates and reinforces new groups at the drop of a hat, in ways previously unimaginable.

In the blink of an eye, in human history, we've exchanged a life with very few hubs for one with masses of them. This is about as profound a social and psychological change as can be imagined.

Stagnate or Develop

What's good about this shift is that we have so much more opportunity than we used to, and we can do things much more easily through ever more specialized and unique groups. Our personal and business decisions become clearer, less frenetic, less bounded. Every few years we can choose a new career hub or add a new social context that has the potential to propel us into a new world. We can express ourselves in collaboration with people we freely choose to work with. We can achieve far more and feel good about it. If we want to experience more, deepen our understanding of life, and achieve more, then we need to join or start a new hub. What is your next important hub going to be? Answering this question and acting on it can be exciting and liberating; and it is the surest way of ensuring that you develop rather than stagnate.

But all profound change has damning downsides too. The shift to a multi-group world imposes a serious challenge to each of us - to choose our hubs wisely, and to leave them if they are not working for us. Yet this is easier said than done. As we'll see in next week's blog, groups have characteristic ways of operating that can make them extremely dangerous to our health and our wealth. We choose our hubs freely, but they then circumscribe our freedom. Tune in same time, same place, to probe the bad side of hubs and what we can do about that.