The Bakeoff

Monday, November 21st, 2005

In The Bakeoff, Malcolm Gladwell looks at a cookie-baking Dream Team and compares it to a nuclear power plant crew and an open-source software development team:

The strength of the Dream Team — the fact that it had so many smart people on it — was also its weakness: it had too many smart people on it. Size provides expertise. But it also creates friction, and one of the truths Project Delta exposed is that we tend to overestimate the importance of expertise and underestimate the problem of friction. Gary Klein, a decision-making consultant, once examined this issue in depth at a nuclear power plant in North Carolina. In the nineteen-nineties, the power supply used to keep the reactor cool malfunctioned. The plant had to shut down in a hurry, and the shutdown went badly. So the managers brought in Klein’s consulting group to observe as they ran through one of the crisis rehearsals mandated by federal regulators. ‘The drill lasted four hours,’ David Klinger, the lead consultant on the project, recalled. ‘It was in this big operations room, and there were between eighty and eighty-five people involved. We roamed around, and we set up a video camera, because we wanted to make sense of what was happening.’

When the consultants asked people what was going on, though, they couldn’t get any satisfactory answers. ‘Each person only knew a little piece of the puzzle, like the radiation person knew where the radiation was, or the maintenance person would say, ‘I’m trying to get this valve closed,’ ‘ Klinger said. ‘No one had the big picture. We started to ask questions. We said, ‘What is your mission?’ And if the person didn’t have one, we said, ‘Get out.’ There were just too many people. We ended up getting that team down from eighty-five to thirty-five people, and the first thing that happened was that the noise in the room was dramatically reduced.’ The room was quiet and calm enough so that people could easily find those they needed to talk to. ‘At the very end, they had a big drill that the N.R.C. was going to regulate. The regulators said it was one of their hardest drills. And you know what? They aced it.’ Was the plant’s management team smarter with thirty-five people on it than it was with eighty-five? Of course not, but the expertise of those additional fifty people was more than cancelled out by the extra confusion and noise they created.

The open-source movement has had the same problem. The number of people involved can result in enormous friction.

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