Groupthink happens when our desire to “keep the peace” in a group overrides our willingness to explore other views and opinions

How To Avoid Groupthink When Creating Strategy Together

Encouraging Different Views With Strategy Knotworking and Liberating Structures

Christiaan Verwijs
Oct 21 · 6 min read

These days, a lot of the work inside and outside organisations is done in groups. Like task forces, Scrum Teams, management teams or your local church committee. Despite the benefits of working in groups, there are also several risks. Groupthink is a clear example of this, which I will explore in this post.

What is Groupthink and why is it bad?

Humans evolved as inherently social beings. Even though we may not always enjoy being part of a group, we are very sensitive to group dynamics nonetheless. Our strong desire to be part of groups biases our ability to arrive at objective, ethical, moral or productive decisions when working in groups. These biases are legion, like our willingness to go along with the opinion of the majority (majority bias), our inclination to seek only confirmation of our assumptions rather than their falsification (confirmation bias) and our inclination to attribute success to what we did as a group and our failures to the situation (fundamental attribution error).

“Groupthink is a particularly strong social bias where our desire for harmony and conformity within a group takes precedence over critical reflection”

First discovered by psychologist Irving Janis, Groupthink is a particularly strong social bias where our desire for harmony and conformity within a group takes precedence over critical reflection, usually through the suppression of alternative views and by isolating or rejecting dissenters. This suppression can be active (cutting people off, bullying or keeping them out) or passive (swallowing our own criticisms).

Groupthink should not be confused with ‘thinking as a group’. The distinguishing characteristic of Groupthink is that dissent is discouraged for the sake of harmony, often resulting in morally or factually questionable decisions and an increasingly narrow view of the world. This is worsened by a parallel process that causes groups to become increasingly convinced of the ‘rightness’ of their decisions (illusion of invulnerability).

“Our history has seen many examples of Groupthink with disastrous outcomes”

Our history has seen many examples of Groupthink with disastrous outcomes, like how management teams from the Tobacco industry rejected strong evidence that linked smoking to cancer or how the war on Iraq was based on a (false) belief that the country possessed nuclear weapons. The continued rejection of human-caused climate change by groups in our society is likely to become a future example as well.

Groupthink is only loosely related to alignment and consensus. While it is true that Groupthink can be considered as a form of ‘fake alignment’ or ‘fake consensus’, groups can align or reach agreement without forcing everyone to think and feel the same way. Our need to arrive at a shared decision as a group does not preclude the careful weighing of alternative perspectives and ideas.

We don’t know exactly what causes Groupthink. As many case studies show, it can happen to any group. But it seems to occur more easily in highly cohesive groups where people strongly associate with the group. Being isolated from people with other views is another potential cause. Finally, stress and pressure (in terms of time or experienced threats) increases susceptibility to Groupthink.

Groupthink and Strategy

When groups face shared challenges, they need to implicitly or explicitly develop strategy to overcome it — the actions necessary to resolve it, the order in which these actions should place and who to involved. Obviously, the narrow worldview caused by Groupthink can result in poor and weak strategies that are likely to be resisted. For example:

  • When organizations embark on transformation journeys (Agile, Lean, Scrum, etc), they may actively suppress dissenting voices or resistance out of a desire for conformity;
  • In many teams and organizations, failure may increasingly be attributed to particular groups, departments or people. Eventually, this becomes the narrative that everyone adheres to, even when the facts are different;
  • When developing a new product without intermediate feedback from users, it is very likely to get stuck in the Groupthink that your product is so amazing that everyone will want it (ignoring the potential reality that nobody wants it);
  • Ignoring signals that a particular strategy or project is not going as expected (something that happens in a vast number of large IT-projects);
  • The implementation of backdoors and privacy-violating features out of a strong belief in the group that this is morally justified;
  • Groupthink can happen when development teams estimate work together and dissenting estimates are ignored;

How can you prevent Groupthink?

Although any group is susceptible to Groupthink, there are things you can do to make groups less susceptible:

  • Find and agree on a methodology to invite and explore dissenting opinions. One strategy is to always have a ‘devil’s advocate’ — a rotating person or subgroup that raises alternative explanations and ideas;
  • Encourage members of a group to discuss ideas and decisions with people outside of the group, so as to get a fresh perspective;
  • Create awareness of Groupthink and what causes it (suppression of dissent, isolation and pressure);
  • Leaders in particular should keep in mind that their opinions carry a social weight, even when this is not their desire. Leaders do well to create space for other opinions, rather than share their own;
  • Create norms and work agreements in groups that encourage and protect dissenting opinions. This doesn’t mean that everyone always has to agree with every decision, but there should be space to disagree;
Develop and tune strategy together, continuously, with Liberating Structures

How Strategy Knotworking Can Prevent Groupthink

We believe that Liberating Structures offer a remedy against Groupthink. Curated and developed by Keith McCandless and Henri Lipmanowicz, they represent an evolving set of 33 interaction patterns for groups that allow all voices to be included in the conversation. Strategy Knotworking is a coherent set of Liberating Structures designed to develop, inspect, update and apply strategy continuously with everyone involved.

The 6 core questions of Strategy Knotworking (visual by Thea Schukken)

Some examples of Liberating Structures that can prevent Groupthink — and fit well with Strategy Knotworking — are:

  • What, So What, Now What is a structure that helps groups make sense of the world together by carefully navigating the ‘ladder of inference’ rather than jumping to conclusions;
  • Structures like TRIZ and Ecocycle Planning help groups use other perspectives;
  • 25/10 Crowd Sourcing leverages anonymity to encourage the spread and selection of new ideas and solutions within even very large groups;
  • UX Fishbowl can be used to invite dissenting voices or different perspectives in the inner circle of the Fishbowl;
  • Core structures such as 1–2–4-ALL and Impromptu Networking create space for different views and opinions, while also dampening the influence of highly-opinionated or more powerful people;

Closing

In this post, we talked about the social phenomenon of Groupthink. It can happen to any team and any group of people working together. We shared a number of solutions, including some Liberating Structures you can use. Let us know what you think!

If you’d like to know more about Liberating Structures or experience a large number of them first-hand, make sure to join our Immersion Workshop in Amsterdam. Or join the Dutch User Group to give and get help from other users.


You can support us by purchasing from our webshop, by joining one of our events or by becoming a patreon.

The Liberators

The Liberators: Unleashing Organisational Superpowers

Christiaan Verwijs

Written by

I aim to liberate teams & organizations from de-humanizing and ineffective ways of organizing work. Professional Scrum Trainer & Steward @ Scrum.org

The Liberators

The Liberators: Unleashing Organisational Superpowers

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