The Britney Spears Guide to Business

Last Updated Sep 25, 2008 12:11 PM EDT

Looking at information cascades reminded me that business people are as prone to frenzy as any Britney Spears fan. Only in business, we squeal in excitement at exotic debt instruments and, of course, those shimmering pay packages.

Now we're in the unfit-to-be-a-mom stage. It's tough to be the center of that kind of attention. Congress wants to take away our visitation rights. Pa Paulson and Ma Bernanke are publicly scolding us. Remember, Britney has started to regain her adoring fans, and we can too (or at least those glitzy paychecks).

What we Britney Business-types need is a good mentor. She got Mel Gibson. We get Robert Menschel. His book "Markets, Mobs and Mayhem," aims to help people and organizations recognize when the crowd runs amok, and figure out how to cool things down. Menschel, coincidentally, was a colleague of Henry Paulson's at Goldman Sachs.

Menschel compiles pretty much every horror story of groups gone bad that you could want to read. From the whimsy of James Thurber's essay on the day the dam almost broke to the ugly smug fury of lynch mobs here and in Rwanda, his message is the same: groups are not smart.

Menschel published his book in 2002, after the tech bubble burst. His book ran counter to the authorial group hug for the power of the crowd evinced in books like Steven Johnson's Emergence, Howard Rheingold's "Smart Mobs" and David Weinberger's "Small Pieces Loosely Joined." Unlike them, Menschel is no fan of technology's effect on groups. "Beware the power of technology to accelerate the rumor mill and validate its products," he warns.

Menschel just doesn't like crowd thinking. He doesn't think smart people make smart crowds, either. He mentions a small, informal meeting where Lawrence Summers, then Treasury of the Secretary, asked Menschel if he still thought Cisco was a bad bet. Cisco had at the time the highest market capitalization of any company in America. Menschel didn't like it â€" it was trading at 200 times earnings. Summers and the rest of the gathering told him he was crazy. Of course, Menschel was right â€" the stock would drop 80 percent in the next year.

Menschel is even doubtful of the intelligence of groups like the non-violent followers of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, though Menschel does call these "noble."

But that doesn't mean you should abandon the use of crowd tactics and collaborative technology in your business. Of course groups can make bad decisions. Of course technology can exacerbate those decisions and make them worse. Of course the maliciously clever might use technology to manipulate crowds. But that's true regardless of technology â€" Charles Ponzi is just one of the rogues who appears in Menschel's gallery, and he didn't need much technology to make his scheme work.

Technology should make schemes more transparent. That doesn't always happen â€" it was obvious that things were out of whack in the mortgage and debt markets for a long time, but it was also the business version of a Britney sighting -- all the growth and money just was so exciting, we couldn't stop ourselves from cheering.

Now, singed by stardom, we turn to Menschel. At the end of every chapter, he has a section called "keeping your head when all about you are losing theirs," filled with advice like "beware the natural ego trip that comes with getting inside the rumor mill yourself" and physical tips, like practicing yoga breathing, or help yourself stay detached by bringing your knees to your chest and encircling them with your arms. It's not sexy advice. It might even isolate you â€" no photo opps with Britney for the person who refuses to jump on the profit wagon while it's rolling downhill. Then again, the paparazzi won't be taking your photo as you cart your boxes out of the wreckage.

  • Michael Fitzgerald

    Michael Fitzgerald writes about innovation and other big ideas in business for publications like the New York Times, The Economist, Fast Company, Inc. and CIO. He’s worked as a writer or editor at Red Herring, ZDNet, TechTV and Computerworld, and has received numerous awards as a writer and editor. Most recently, his piece on the hacker collective the l0pht won the 2008 award for best trade piece from the American Society of Journalists and Authors. He was also a 2007 Templeton-Cambridge Journalism Fellow in Science and Religion.