It's a Project Manager's World Newsletter with Dr. James Brown
      May, 2011 www.SebaSolutions.com Full Moon Edition      

Avoiding Groupthink


I recently had the opportunity to speak with Oscar Rodriguez who has been CEO of three companies. I asked him what surprised him as a leader.  Oscar’s response was “Over the years I have found that good people can groupthink themselves into a bad decision or situation… independently they are good people… in isolation the decisions may be good… but as a whole the decision/outcome may not be the best.  Leaders need to step back and do a holistic look and say does this make sense…are we doing the right things… do we have the right skills and competency?

When you are leading groups keep in mind that members may come to agreement on the wrong decision or course of action to soon and then reaffirm with each other that it was the right decision.  The aforementioned is especially true of teams that are close or have worked together for a long time or may have a dominant member.  Often groups may not adequately look at the process for the decision, alternative courses of action or the impact of incremental decisions as a whole. 

Consider the quote from Edward Russo's book Decision Traps: The Ten Barriers to Decision Making and How to Overcome Them “Groups are likely to outperform individuals only to the extent that productive conflict arises among their members and such conflicts get resolved through balanced debate and careful intelligence gathering…When it doesn’t happen groups are just as likely to err as individuals – and sometimes more so.”  

To avoid groupthink you must do two things…

1.    Step back and ask the metaquestions about the decision – A good list of metaquestions can be found at this link http://www.indiana.edu/~koertge/H205/Russo.htm.  A few of these should be at the forefront of your mind as leader.  From the list by Russo they are:

  • What's the crux or primary difficulty in this issue?
  • In which of the key elements of the decision process does it lie? (Framing, Gathering Intelligence, Coming to Conclusions, Learning from Feedback)
  • In general, how should decisions like this one be made? (e.g. alone or in groups; intuitively or analytically, etc.)”

2.    Encourage productive debate.  As a leader you must promote and manage productive debate and multiple points of view.  I spend a lot of time in training classes emphasizing the importance of trust in leadership and the necessity to continually build it in your teams.  Trust allows your team  to deal with conflict more effectively but sometimes it may be a contributing factor to people not challenging each other’s ideas/perspectives adequately which can lead to groupthink. 

As a leader you must have the ability to manage and sometimes create positive, open debate within a group to ensure thoroughness when it comes to evaluating a decision.

Management case studies are filled with examples of groups of smart people making decisions that made little sense in hindsight... sometimes to the point of absurdity.  Your role as a leader is to ensure this does not happen.  Take the extra time to objectively evaluate the decision process with metaquestions and encourage positive debate…especially when the decision seems obvious or there is no other apparent choice.

Dr. James T. Brown, Author, The Handbook of Program Management, McGraw-Hill

Copyright 2011 SEBA Solutions Inc.

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