clonesGroupthink is one of the nefarious decision-making missteps of teams, and a trap that many smart people and groups have fallen victim to throughout history.

From the classic example cited in nearly every discussion on decision-making, the Kennedy administration’s Bay of Pigs fiasco, to Ford’s launch of the Edsel, to Neviille Chamberlin’s inner circle that believed peace with Hitler was at hand, Groupthink has earned a prominent place in our culture.

And while you might not be planning an invasion or negotiation with evil dictators or planning on launching an ugly automobile, chances are that Groupthink has shown up from time to time in your professional world.

Groupthink at Work in the Workplace:

The essence of this decision-making trap is the irrational pursuit of consensus above all other priorities.  Along the way, those that study group dynamics have identified a number of technical characteristics of Groupthink, including:suppression of reality testing, censorship of doubts, ignoring outside information, overconfidence and an emerging attitude of invulnerability.  While some of these terms have a distinct technical ring to them, they are descriptive enough to suggest a closed, insular and out-of-touch with reality team culture.

I see Groupthink at work regularly on management teams that have convinced themselves that their strategy is the only way forward. They spend months defining a universe that fits their collective frame of reference, and then they build plans to operate in that universe.  While the plans are often elegant, the team’s construct on the external world and clients becomes as much fiction as fact, guaranteeing failure.  After a long period of time invested in framing this strategy, Groupthink’s cousin, Escalation of Commitment, joins the party and together, they work to block out evidence to the contrary and prevent the team from recognizing the need to restart.

Functional groups are prone to a kind of Groupthink, when the organization’s culture and structure emphasizes rigid boundaries and strong penalties for stepping on turf and toes that are not your own.  The isolated group begins to define the internal and external world from its own viewpoint, and almost as a survival strategy, it shuts out external opinion and blocks ideas that are potentially threatening to their view and their silo boundaries.

And perhaps more commonplace, project groups of all types work to believe that achieving consensus is the only way to move forward on an issue. Often, if you peel a layer back on the push towards consensus, it’s driven in large part out of an irrational concern for the feelings of others.  “We want people to feel invested,” or, “I don’t want to step on anyone’s toes.”  If this were the holiday season, I would offer a distinct, “Humbug!” The pursuit of consensus gives rise to the tyranny of mediocrity.  Or worse.

6 Steps to Avoid Groupthink on Teams:

1. Anticipate Groupthink in your Risk Plan. While it might sound like planning to fail, ignoring the potential for Groupthink is a failure to plan for a very real risk.  And like any risk plan, there must be processes for monitoring and mitigating emerging Groupthink.

2. Size counts. Limit the typical team size to less than 10 and ensure that there are well-defined boundaries for inclusion.  Porous team boundaries and widespread casual involvement on teams breeds dysfunction, including pressure towards consensus for the wrong reasons.

3. Invite external perspectives at various stages of the process.  Of course, you’ve got to have the procedures in place to both protect external viewpoints and to find ways to incorporate them into the group’s thinking and plans.

4. Lengthen the discussion phase…use structured discussion to focus on vetting the issues.  Delay a rush to judgment.  I encourage groups to incorporate non-typical discussion processes such as Six Hats Thinking to dramatically improve discussion quality.

5. Develop a second solution.  I referenced this approach in Practical Lessons in Leadership. Challenge your team to assume that management will reject their first solution.  Develop an alternative and very different second solution and be prepared to defend it.

6. Invite the Devil’s Advocate to the party. While a designated Devil’s Advocate is a contrived role and everyone knows it, at least someone will be throwing rocks at the groups beautiful picture.  Rules on respecting and vetting the DA’s perspective are critical to benefitting from this approach.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

Forewarned is forearmed.  Decision-making is tough enough, and it grows in complexity when there are groups involved.  Don’t naively assume that your group of smart people is immune to the many pitfalls and missteps that dot the path towards a decision.  Groupthink is like the common cold, and while there may not be a cure, there sure are some preventative measures that can help keep it at bay.