Vision by Committee
© 9 Feb 2012 Luther Tychonievich
Licensed under Creative Commons: CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
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Are visionaries always individuals?


Earlier this week I attended a CS department faculty meeting in which a visitor from the administrative group over the department (the School of Engineering) discussed the “‍strategic plan‍” for bettering the school. This was neither strategic nor a plan, but more a vision statement and set of milestones. This observation caused one of our professors, Jack Stankovic, to observe that visions are created by visionaries, not by committees. This assertion was made without evidence late enough in the meeting none contested it, so I was unable to determine if it was generally agreed upon or not.

The same day I had spent some time catching up on back episodes of the Planet Money podcast and blog posts. In one of them (I can’t recall which) one of the Planet Money team suggested that the economy follows the predictions of the extremists, not the mainstream. My reaction to that assertion was to ponder how many more extremist views there are and to wonder if any future has not been predicted by someone.

This raises what I expect is the core reason behind committees: a committee has too many minds involved for outlying viewpoints to win the day. We don’t wont some random crank running the show so we have a group to filter out the crank ideas. We do this with peer-reviewed research, with voting legislatures and polities, with almost all decisions that impact more than a few people. It takes a group to water down an extremist.

But this begs the question, can a committee tell the difference between a visionary and a crank? Or even more fundamentally, do visionaries actually exist? Are there people who see the future more clearly than the masses, and if there are are they likely to be able to convince anyone of that fact? Are my visions, my disruptive ideas that don’t fit into the mainstream just the random, unlikely-to-work ideas of yet another unstable human mind? Am I any more likely to sway a committee that my ideas are sound if I am a visionary than if I am just some crank?

One thing seems clear: people do believe in visionaries retroactively. I wonder if they are right to do so.

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