Jon Robson Jon Robson

A new movie is on the cards based on the book, Lord of the Flies, but with a twist. Instead of English school children stranded on an island, it will be girls. The blogosphere is in uproar: ‘the film makers have missed the point’ they say. But have they really? Enter the debate diversity and entrepreneurs.

The author of Lord of the Flies, the late William Golding was once questioned on what might have happened in his novel, had the stranded kids been girls. He said: “I think women are foolish to pretend they are equal to men, they are far superior and always have been.”

It’s a funny thing, these days any hint that someone thinks that men are superior to women and they are, quite rightly, greeted with howls of derision, but say ‘women are superior to men’ and you are often greeted with a kind of wry smile, or a knowing laugh. It’s a funny comment, but only because it is true, is the inference.

But lets’ rewind a bit. In case you don’t know, the Lord of the Flies is a book about a group of English school boys who are left stranded on a deserted island after a plane crashes during the war. They elect a boy called Ralph as leader, who comes to respect another boy called Piggy, who is very bright, but an overweight asthmatic – and is presented as a natural victim of bullies. Ralph tries to set down rules, and key to this is keeping a fire permanently alight to alert passing ships to their presence. But there is a leadership clash between Ralph and the aggressive leader of the choir, Jack. Ultimately, Jack wins the clash, Piggy is killed, but the group of boys descend into something akin to wild animals, Ralph flees from the boys in fear of his life, but in the meantime a Royal Navy vessel lands on the island, when the boys are admonished for not behaving how English school children should.

So, if instead of the boys, the kids had been girls would the outcome have been different?

William Golding himself said “if you land with a group of little boys, they are more like a scaled-down version of society than a group of little girls would be.”

But maybe it would be more accurate to describe the book as a novel about groupthink, and what happens when you have a lack of diversity.

The idea of groupthink was advanced by the psychologist Irving Janis, back in the 1970s. Actually, he focused on a quite different novel; Orwell’s 1984. He said “I use the term groupthink as a quick and easy way to refer to the mode of thinking that persons engage in when concurrence-seeking becomes so dominant in a cohesive ingroup that it tends to override realistic appraisal of alternative courses of action. Groupthink is a term of the same order as the words in the newspeak vocabulary George Orwell used in his dismaying world of 1984. In that context, groupthink takes on an invidious connotation. Exactly such a connotation is intended, since the term refers to a deterioration in mental efficiency, reality testing and moral judgments as a result of group pressures.”

We also know that groups tend to exaggerate the commonly held view of the members of that group – it is called group polarisation – mild risk takers, when they come together take on the persona of reckless gamblers.

We know that crowds can be very smart, but we also know that groups, dominated by people who hold similar views, can make terrible decisions – the Bay of Pigs fiasco in Cuba is often cited as an example, maybe the invasion of Iraq over the belief that there were weapons of mass destruction is another example. Maybe the activities of bankers before the 2008 crash is an another.

Groupthink is danger to business, and a threat to entrepreneurs. As Matt Smith, Director at The Centre for Entrepreneurs told Fresh Business Thinking, when asked what advice he had for entrepreneurs: “challenge yourself not to recruit people like yourself.”

Of course, if Golding’s island was full of girls and not boys, there would still be a danger of lack of diversity.

A more relevant question is what would happen if the group of kids on Golding’s island were better collaborators, and there was diversity.

In a TED talk Margaret Heffernan cites research from a team at MIT. “They brought in hundreds of volunteers,” said Heffernan, “they put them into groups, and they gave them very hard problems to solve. And what happened was exactly what you’d expect, that some groups were very much more successful than others, but what was really interesting was that the high-achieving groups were not those where they had one or two people with spectacularly high IQs. Nor were the most successful groups the ones that had the highest aggregate IQ. Instead, they had three characteristics. First of all, they showed high degrees of social sensitivity to each other. Secondly, the successful groups gave roughly equal time to each other, so that no one voice dominated, but neither were there any passengers. And thirdly, the more successful groups had more women in them.”

What was that? More women in them!

Maybe Lord of the Flies would have created a different result if there had been more women, but maybe not if they had all been women.

What we can say is that the modern ideals of collaboration and sharing are the antithesis of Lord of the Flies. As Lucy-Rose Walker, Chief Entrepreneuring Officer of Entrepreneurial Spark told Fresh Business Thinking: “People know that collaboration creates a better outcome, you bring together different ideas and different people for the greater good. The previous way you worked was based on the view we are in a competitive world, striving to achieve by competing against one another. We are in a world now where people recognise that we are going to have to work together and collaborate to be able to keep up with the change.”

Lord of the Flies captured that debate perfectly.

It also turns out that if you want to avoid groupthink, have more millennials in your team. Millennials are more inclined to speak out, put greater emphasis on individual identities, ideas, thoughts, and opinions, or so Anna Johansson argues.

So, there you have it. If the Lord of the Flies had been about a diversity group of people from different ethic groups, different sexes, and different ages with at least some millennials, the outcome may have been quite different.

Then again a book about boys and girls on an island, may have had a quite different theme, we could have called the book Love Island instead, and as William Golding said: “if they’d been little boys and little girls, we being who we are, sex would have raised its lovely head, and I didn’t want this to be about sex. Sex is too trivial a thing to get in with a story like this, which was about the problem of evil and the problem of how people are to live together in a society, not just as lovers or man and wife.”

Authors' note, Matt Smith and Lucy-Rose Walker are judges at NatWest The Great British Entrepreneur Awards.