Work Life

Groupthink Kills Collaboration!

Photo of Holger Reisinger
Posted
August 25, 2015
Reading time
3 minutes

Some of the biggest blunders in history – both corporate and otherwise – can be attributed to the concept of groupthink. Along with new research on the topic come practical new tips for keeping it out of your decision making processes.

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Have you ever run across a corporate decision that seemed so mind-boggling that you shook your head and wondered, “What were they thinking?”

Me too.

In many cases, those head-scratcher decisions were brought on by the concept of groupthink. That’s what happens when otherwise intelligent individuals feel pressured to conform to the views expressed by influencers. Members hesitate to voice concerns for fear of being ridiculed, and, in the absence of dissent, assume all others approve of the decisions being made.

Perhaps the most colossal marketing failure ever, Coca-Cola’s launch of New Coke in the mid-1980s, was in large part due to groupthink. More recently, the global banking crisis of 2008 was triggered by an epic pattern of groupthink.

But groupthink isn’t just limited to large-scale corporate decisions. Smaller ones – such as buying software, introducing a new product or even hiring a new employee – can fall victim to it as well.

And that worries me. In a flat global organization, productive collaboration and collective decision making are key. When you consider how many collaborative decisions a company makes every day, the potential for some, or many, to become infected with groupthink is staggering. This could distort the depicted benefits of the collaborative movement!

New Research—and Reasons to be Wary

Although the concept of groupthink has been around for decades, some new – and perhaps worrisome – thinking has emerged in a book, “Wiser: Getting Beyond Groupthink to Make Groups Smarter,” by Cass Sunstein, a professor at Harvard University.

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The book argues that a group’s deliberation process actually tends to amplify, instead of correct, mistakes. Worse, while debating an issue, the group will eventually stake out an even more extreme position than it adopted initially by focusing on information that supports its point of view and ignoring contradictory information.

The result, as we all know, is a lousy decision.

So how do we avoid the scourge of groupthink in our collaborative decisions? Fortunately, the book provides a few insights, which I plan to use during my next decision making session.

  • Focus on the right things. Make certain that the collaborating team is focused on answering the right question or solving the right problem. Before finalizing your decision, go back and review the original problem you were asked to solve.
  • Don’t speak; listen! Strong-willed opinion leaders are too often the cause of groupthink. During group discussions, people should devote at least 80% of their time listening and observing and just 20% speaking.
  • Encourage other perspectives. The group must adopt a mindset that strongly encourages team members to express a diversity of perspectives, especially principled dissent.
  • Don’t rely on just “some” of the information. When gathering information to make a decision, be sure you consult all relevant sources and share all data collected with the Group.
  • Divide tasks based on expertise. When dividing up duties, assign tasks to those best-qualified based on their knowledge, experience and judgment.
  • Seek out disagreement. Use a “devil’s advocate” approach when scrutinizing each option you’re studying. When you’ve settled on one, appoint one or more team members or bring in an independent “red team” to challenge your decision.
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Let’s face it: Decisions made on group level are never easy. And they’re even less so when it has been overtaken by groupthink. Knowing what groupthink is and how to avoid it can help us meet the potential of the collective and increase the productivity of collaboration.

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