Dysfunctional groups

by Mary Ann McGivern

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I picked up a free book at a community center, Spycatcher, and read it on the bus from Chicago to St. Louis. It was written by Peter Wright, former assistant director of MI5, back in 1987, and I was expecting a good thriller.

What I got was a close description of group dysfunction dating back to the '30s and stretching across the "free" world, England, France, the U.S., Australia, Canada -- everybody, it seems but the KGB in the Soviet Union who had planted spies and spy equipment everywhere. And of course we don't have an insider to tell us about KGB failures and dysfunction.

It's not Peter Wright's point that MI5 needed better group dynamics. He's got a spy story to tell. But I found it a tough slog. It's a story of little accountability, little follow-through, little investigation -- an old boys' club where some of the boys were working for the other side.

I've been in plenty of dysfunctional groups myself, but none that bad. My colleagues are in it to build a better world, and maybe to work out old issues with their parents, but our work is straightforward and we have little money to squander.

My mind wandered to our current spy network which has billions to squander and hundreds of thousands of people with security clearances. It's a set-up for things to go wrong, like seeing bad guys in the night. And indeed there is an AlterNet account of how informants actually made up most of the terrorist plots the FBI claims to have busted.

So I've been pondering Albert Einstein who said, "We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them." And I've also thought about the late television commentator Eric Sevareid who once said, "The chief cause of problems is solutions."

We've made incredible technical advances. My author, Peter Wright, was a scientist outsider brought into espionage and he led some of the modernization, persuading governments to spend millions. But he couldn't persuade his team to work well together. And today things are only worse.

I think before we spend another dollar on the works of war we should spend a few billion learning how to behave in small groups.

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