The Quintessential Blog

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Avoid the Groupthink trap


On January 28, 1986, the NASA Space Shuttle orbiter Challenger lifted off from Cape Canaveral in Florida.  73 seconds into its flight, it exploded nine miles above the Atlantic Ocean.  All seven crew members were killed.

The air temperature on that particular day was 15°F (9.5°C) lower than on previous launches. Engineers had raised concerns regarding the performance of an “O-ring seal” on the solid rocket boosters under cold temperatures, but ultimately the decision was made to proceed with the launch.  Shortly after launch the seal failed and caused hot pressurised gas to leak, causing the shuttle to explode.  In the years that followed, various investigations and case studies on the complex set of circumstances contributing to the accident concluded that a cognitive bias referred to as “Groupthink” affected the decision making process and contributed to the Challenger explosion.

How can we prevent or at least minimize the phenomena of groupthink within projects?  Building a diverse and collaborative team is a key element in safeguarding against groupthink, and here’s why…

 But first, what is Groupthink?

In 1972, psychologist Irving Janis defined groupthink as:

“A mode of thinking people engage in when they are deeply involved in a cohesive in-group, when the members’ striving for unanimity overrides their motivation to realistically appraise alternative courses of action.  Groupthink leads to a deterioration of mental efficiency, reality testing, and moral judgment that results from in-group pressures.”

The organisational conditions that evoke the groupthink phenomena is present in teams that are highly goal and task oriented, where the need for consensus and conformity is high, and where poor decision-making goes unchallenged in preference to ‘not rocking the boat’.  The team may also have a tendency to insulate itself from external influences and accept a directive and non-consultative leadership style that enforces the homogeneity of group ideology.  Teams are particularly vulnerable to groupthink when its members possess similar backgrounds and have comparable mindsets.  Consequently, individual creativity, uniqueness and independent thinking are lost in the pursuit of group cohesion.  Sound familiar?


Back to diversity, how does it safeguard against groupthink?

Ross Ashby, a British cyberneticist and psychiatrist developed his Law of Requisite Variety in a biological context — how organisms are able to adapt and strive within their environment.  Simply stated, Ashby’s Law of Requisite Variety says that in order to properly address the complex problems that the world throws at you, you need to have a repertoire of responses that is at least diverse as the problems being faced.


If you are faced with a simple problem, then a simple response will suffice.

If you are faced with a complex problem, then no amount of simple solutions will be able to help you.

The opportunities and threats that we encounter in complex projects are becoming increasingly difficult to navigate due to the number of uncertainties and ambiguities that confront us.  Therefore our ability to take advantage of our differences equips us with the repertoire of responses that we need to tackle the diversity of the challenges we face providing that we can effectively share, integrate and mobilise our views.

…and what of leadership?

Teams that are able to leverage their diversity and convert this into collaborative practices place themselves in the best position to succeed.  However, for this to occur, the leader must be able to make their team resilient to the external and internal pressures that create the alluring need to revert to conformity and the desire to seek an accord.  In this context, leadership is not about being the decision maker, but rather it relies on the leader’s ability to facilitate their team in making the best decisions at the time.  Rather than lead from the front, the leader needs to take a back seat to observe, guide, adapt and help shape the many compelling ideas through innovative approaches that may, in fact, be at odds with their own views and beliefs.  In doing so, they actively listen to their team’s opinions and concerns, thereby encouraging decisions to be made by the team as a collaborative process.

The operationalisation of diversity is an enabler for teams to benefit from the advantages of collaboration — the synergy created when diverse sources of ideas, knowledge, thinking styles and experience are appreciated, integrated and brought together to solve a problem.  Leaders that are able to foster this are able to create a team culture whereby outsiders and/or unpopular views are appreciated, valued and appropriately acted upon and, in the process, generate the diverse repertoire of responses that is required to address the complexities they face.  Teams that do this are more likely to navigate the uncertainties of unchartered territories such as those that contributed to the Challenger disaster and, importantly, have the resolve to make difficult decisions rather than succumb to the groupthink trap.