CIO Leadership, IT Performance

Is groupthink poisoning your organization?

How CIOs can spot and address groupthink in their organization

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A “collective” mind does not exist. It is merely the sum of endless numbers of individual minds. If we have an endless number of individual minds who are weak, meek, submissive and impotent – who renounce their creative supremacy for the sake of the “whole” and accept humbly the “whole’s” verdict – we don’t get a collective super-brain. We get only the weak, meek, submissive and impotent collective mind.” -Ayn Rand

Groupthink is a term coined by social psychologist Irving Janis in 1972.  It describes a psychological phenomenon that occurs within a group of people, in which the desire for harmony or conformity in the group results in an incorrect or deviant decision-making outcome. Group members try to minimize conflict and reach a consensus decision without critical evaluation of alternative ideas or viewpoints, and by isolating themselves from outside influences. A sense of loyalty to the group requires individuals to avoid raising controversial issues or alternative solutions, and there is loss of individual creativity, uniqueness and independent thinking.  Two well-known examples of groupthink in action are the Challenger Space Shuttle disaster and the Bay of Pigs invasion. Engineers of the space shuttle knew about some faulty parts months before takeoff, but they did not want negative press so they pushed ahead with the launch anyway. With the Bay of Pigs invasion, President Kennedy made a decision and the people around him supported it despite their own concerns.

Sound familiar? When I entered the IT world in the early 90s I was initially struck by the pervasiveness of groupthink among my employees and colleagues.   Little has changed in the 20+ years since then.  The phenomenon occurs in other fields such as finance, HR and even medicine, but it seems particularly pervasive and destructive in IT organizations.

How do you know if your organization is infected with groupthink? Here are ten symptoms of groupthink and how they manifest themselves in organizations. I have adapted these from multiple sources plus my own experience.

  1. The Illusion of Invulnerability: Members ignore obvious danger, take extreme risk, and are overly optimistic.   How many times do project teams give overly optimistic projections for what they can accomplish within a given timeframe or budget?  They manage to convince themselves that they can do the impossible.  Confidence is good, overconfidence is dangerous.
  2. Rationalization:
Team members convince themselves that despite evidence to the contrary, the decision or alternative being presented is the best one.
"Those other people don't agree with us because they haven't researched the problem as extensively as we have." An infatuation with a technology can blind even the most intelligent person to risks.
  3. The Illusion of Morality: Members believe their decisions are morally correct, ignoring the ethical consequences of their decisions.   The human mind has an amazing capacity to justify our actions.  Most white collar criminals convinced themselves that their actions were justified because they were either acting for some greater good, or because they believed that they deserved the outcome based on their own worth. Groups can likewise justify questionable actions based on taking the perceived moral high ground.  If no one objects, everyone marches over the cliff.
  4. Excessive Stereotyping: The group constructs negative stereotypes of rivals outside the group.   How often do your people complain about the ignorance or recklessness of your company’s “users?”  Demonizing business colleagues has been an IT organization pastime since the beginning.  While we may have disagreements with colleagues from other disciplines, never allow your staff to position themselves as being superior to their colleagues.
  5. Pressure for Conformity: Members pressure any in the group who express arguments against the group's stereotypes, illusions, or commitments, viewing such opposition as disloyalty.  In the IT world standards can become a rallying point for conformity.  Anyone who proposes trying something new or innovative that falls out of the IT standards catalog is at risk of being branded as disloyal.
  6. Complacency:
After a few successes, the group begins to feel like any decision they make is the right one because there is no disagreement from any source.
"Our track record speaks for itself!" Complacent groups can easily become isolated groups operating without adequate input or oversight. Believing they are on the right track they proceed full speed ahead towards the wrong destination.  Good IT governance helps prevent complacency.
  7. Self-Censorship: Members withhold their dissenting views and counter-arguments.   Believing that they are being “team players” members of the group opt to keep their objections and concerns to themselves. Having one or more dominant or outspoken team members can also easily intimidate others into passive agreement.
  8. Illusion of Unanimity: Members perceive falsely that everyone agrees with the group's decision; silence is seen as consent.   This is the logical consequence of self-censorship.
  9. Mindguards: Some members appoint themselves to the role of protecting the group from adverse information that might threaten group complacency. Leaders who either fear conflict or who are overconfident about their own abilities and knowledge frequently assume this role.
  10. Confirmation Bias: The group develops a belief about a given situation or direction and then only seeks out information that supports that belief. Nowhere is confirmation bias more prevalent than in the technology due diligence performed by IT teams.  Beliefs about the superiority of a particular technology, vendor or strategy can blind one to objective assessment leading to the evaluation of only limited options that support the team’s biases.

Your organization may not exhibit all of these symptoms, but the manifestation of only a few can have disastrous effects on the quality of decision-making.  This may result in:

•          A reluctance to critically evaluate ideas;

•          Failure to thoughtfully examine alternatives;

•          Not seeking expert opinions;

•          Being highly selective in gathering information; and,

•          Not having contingency plans.

CIOs need to constantly be on the lookout for signs of groupthink and move quickly to confront them when they occur.  What can you do to address groupthink?  Here are a few suggestions.

  • Create a culture where asking relevant and thoughtful questions is valued.  This must begin with the leader who not only asks good questions but also is willing to be asked good questions. 
  • Ask groups to describe the alternatives they rejected in route to their decisions and why these were rejected.  In one of the MBA courses I teach I require that team presentations on business strategies include the rejected alternatives and the thought process behind their decisions. This forces the students to carefully examine alternatives and be able to clearly articulate the pros and cons of each.  Do the same thing in your organization.
  • Encourage oversight.  A good IT governance process with active involvement from a broad spectrum of leaders from across the company will insure that the right questions are being asked and that your organization is working on the right things in the right way.  I can’t overemphasize the importance of this.
  • Finally, be vigilant.  Be on the lookout for the earliest signs of groupthink and direct your concerns directly to the people involved.  Don’t delegate this.

If your organization is going to lead innovation through technology you need to make sure that every mind is being used to its fullest potential.  Strive for, in Ayn Rand’s words, a  “collective super-brain” instead of a “weak, meek, submissive and impotent collective mind.”

 

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Discussion
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mdavis10
Martin Davis 128 Points | Mon, 07/08/2013 - 16:38

Great article Joel.

Totally agree with John, a must read for CIOs.

Another impact of Groupthink is killing innovation. If everyone wants to act and think alike then no one will step forward with new ideas.

jdodge
John Dodge 1384 Points | Mon, 07/08/2013 - 14:30

This is a must read for CIOs and IT personnel especially, as you say, Joel, that they are particularly susceptible to groupthink. It takes courage to separate from the pack. The sheep pic illustrates the point especially when one does not speak up when they know it's simply cheerleading and not the right way to go.  

Your quotation by Ayn Rand is one of the few times where I would agree with her. 

As they say, "high risk, high reward." To take that a step further, "no risk, no reward."

jdobbs
Joel Dobbs 322 Points | Mon, 07/08/2013 - 15:38

I don't often quote Ayn Rand either but this one, taken from her personal journals, seemed spot on for this subject. 

One of my favorite Gary Larson Far Side cartoons is drawing of a herd of sheep.  In the middle, a lone sheep is standing on its hind legs with both front legs extended into the air.  The caption reads, "Hey, we don't have to be sheep anymore!"  More IT folks need to decide to not be sheep anymore.