10 tips: from groupthink to effective group decision-making

As a consultant, I’ve had the chance to participate and lead tens of workshops and group exercises, in which innovative solutions had to be found, defined and tested for diverse problems.

Following the advice and methods of more experienced consultants at Kaizen Institute, I could facilitate discussions and exercises within multidisciplinary groups, getting together to great effective solutions.

Having left the Kaizen Institute two years ago, and moving on in a more “entrepreneurial” way, I have been free to make bigger mistakes and to get to very ineffective solutions.

So, how come that a much less experienced version of myself was so much more effective?

The response may not in my experience but rather in the systems that I was using.

Unaware of the underlying behavioural dynamics that were happening while I was using Kaizen tools in a disciplined way, I only came to realise their importance once I stopped using them.

On developing new tools and systems to make purpose-driven projects and organizations more effective, I am getting to improve my understanding of the human mind, and in this article, I am sharing some interesting keynotes taken from Cass Sunstein and Reid Hastie’ book Wiser: Getting Beyond Groupthink to Make Groups Smarter”.

Groupthink problems

Groupthink #1. Individual errors are amplified

Individual errors are amplified, not just propagated, as a result of deliberation.

Groups stick to courses of action that are failing, even more than individuals.

The more effort or resources a group have invested in a project the more likely it is that they will keep adding resources even when it is evident that the project is a lost cause.

Groupthink #2. Cascade effects

Groups fall victim to cascade effects, as the early speakers or actors ensure that people do not learn what is known by their successors.

Groupthink #3. Polarization

Because of group polarization, members of deliberating groups often end up in a more extreme position in line with their predeliberation tendencies.

Groupthink #4. Unshared information

In deliberating groups, shared information often crowds out unshared information, ensuring that groups do not learn everything their members know.

Individuals who share information that has already been shared are more easily likeable, which is an incentive for self-censorship.

When information is unshared, group judgements have been found to be no more accurate than average of the individual judgements, even though the groups have possession of more information than do any of the individuals.

Group decisions and postgroup preferences reflect the initial preferences of group members even when the exchange of unshared information should have resulted in substantial shifts in opinion — William Titus

Groupthink causes

Causes for those problems lie in the existence of hierarchies, reputational and social pressures, repetition of shared information, informational signals, availability heuristics and experience among others.

How do we get beyond them to take advantage of the knowledge held by all the group members?

[…] The most disturbing conclusion is that when key information is unshared, groups are more likely to choose an inferior option after discussion than their individual members might before any discussion occurs […] — Cass Sunstein

In the state of rush and survival in which organizations live continuously, intuition is overused. Intuition was very useful for the survival of hunter-gatherers.

It might also be very useful in activities where experts need to make quick decisions on tasks where repeatability is high and feedback is provided almost immediately (like firefighters or surgeons).

However, when forecasting and planning, intuition has been proven to be no better than chance.

Effective group decision-making

A culture that promotes slow thinking, a culture that allows different perspectives to come in, a culture where open leadership is promoted, is a culture that allows information to flow and effective decisions to be taken.

How would effective leaders act within such a culture?

Effective group decision-making #1. Listen to everyone

Indicate willingness and desire to hear uniquely held information.

Ask as many questions as needed.

The idea is to gather as much relevant information as possible, so is important to be sure that all voices are heard and that reasons are understood.

If you are leading a discussion, silence yourself until you have heard everyone else.

Refuse to state a firm view at the outset and allow space for more information to emerge.

Effective group decision-making #2. Separate divergent-thinking from consensus-seeking.

Clearly separate divergent-thinking from consensus-seeking processes, as they work better separately.

If both processes are mixed, the flow of ideas might be stopped by those who are focusing too much on the constraints.

It is good though, to share some criteria with the group a few hours or even a couple of days before the session, allowing this information to fade into the background of consciousness and into the periphery of the group process while solutions are generated.

Effective group decision-making #3. Avoid too much optimism

Avoid too much optimism and happy-talk during the divergent-thinking process.

Anxious people produce diversity and dissent and should not be left out.

Effective group decision-making #4. Prime critical thinking

By priming the process correctly you are triggering some association or thought in such a way as to affect people’s choices and behaviours.

If you are naming your meeting “collaborative problem-solving” your team will be in a much more collaborative mode than if you pass a message like “urgent problem-solving meeting”.

Effective group decision-making #5. Reward group success

Cascade effects are less likely to happen when each individual knows that he has nothing to gain from a correct individual decision and everything to gain from a correct group decision.

Manage expectations and incentives carefully, as you don’t want to promise external rewards that you will not be able to keep in future projects.

The general idea is to be fair. People have to feel that mistakes won’t be punished and that success will benefit all.

Effective group decision-making #6. Tasks and roles

Assign tasks and roles and respect them.

Effective group decision-making #7. Change perspectives

Get people out of their routine thought processes by assigning hypothetical roles.

Effective group decision-making #8. Devil’s advocates

Promote the devil’s advocates / create red teams. Indicate agreement with people who have inconsistent and conflicting positions so that they develop and elaborate diverging opinions.

A more resource-consuming version of devil’s advocates consists of building Red Teams.

Red Teams are responsible for testing worst-case-scenarios or for beating the first team.

Effective group decision-making #9. Use data

Speak with data. Most of the times it is not necessary to perform deep and costly research to make decisions.

However, by using simple checklists, structured methodologies and creating extremely lean experiments to collect just the right amount of data from the field, we are eliminating biases, paradigms and “beliefs”.

“Go to the Gemba” is one of the key values the Kaizen philosophy defends.

Effective group decision-making #10. Communicate visually

Speak visually and make it fun. Information is understood faster when represented in a visual way.

Run Visual Meetings and create a friendly and fun environment. Engaging-semi-structured methodologies produce extremely productive meetings. Avoid “laptop-meetings”.

It is almost impossible to build rapport when everyone is looking at his “google doc” instead of looking at each other’s eyes. If you do need to use your computer, share a screen or use a projector when possible.

Conclusions

Group failures often have disastrous consequences. The good news is that decades of empirical work alongside recent innovations offer a toolbox of practical safeguards, correctives and enhancements.

Groups can take steps to combine statistical averaging with deliberation. Leaders can create a culture that does not punish the expression of dissident views.

With simple structured systems, groups can get a lot more effective!

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