The saying “too many cooks spoil the broth” is well-known. It means that the more people involved in a task, the poorer the outcome. I find this expression holds true in the world of business where innovation, adaptability and quick decision-making are crucial.
You have probably attended a board meeting where everyone reached a unanimous decision in record time. However, what might appear as straightforward consensus-building can often disguise an underlying issue known as “groupthink.”
First established by social psychologist Irving Janis, the term “groupthink” describes the phenomenon that occurs when a group setting results in an inability to reason clearly and rationally due to the desire for harmony, consensus or conformity. While first researched within high-stakes political and governmental contexts, the high-pressure, collaborative landscape of the modern workplace can give room for groupthink to lurk, unnoticed, as it quietly dissembles decision-making processes, hinders innovation efforts and starves creativity.
How Groupthink Suppresses Corporate Innovation Efforts
1. Lack Of Diverse Perspectives And Creative Thinking
Groupthink occurs when there is a unanimous desire for conformity and maintaining harmony to the extent that it is more important than expressing an honest perspective or contrary opinion. In corporate innovation, this can be particularly harmful.
In a consensus-based setting, there’s little room for opposite objectives and problems are rarely tackled from different angles. Diverse perspectives, on the other hand, can enrich the creative process by enhancing decision-making and reducing cognitive biases. This ultimately lets innovation thrive, whereas groupthink means a singular perspective tends to dominate.
2. No Room For Differing Opinions
In an environment where everyone strives to seek group harmony, there is ultimately no room for disagreement. In the case of new ideas surfacing, individuals who might have certain reservations or doubts about those ideas could ultimately decide not to share them.
In companies where a “HiPPO” culture exists—an acronym meaning that decisions are based mainly on the “highest paid person’s opinion” instead of real data—or where a biased leader is driving the decisions in a certain direction, the barrier to express opposing views is much higher.
3. Resisting Change And Missing Opportunities
Innovation in the real sense of the word means adopting something new, thereby implying change. In a setting where groupthink rules, however, the need for a solution that maintains harmony and the pressure to maintain the status quo can override the need to embrace change. Hence, you might miss adopting and implementing innovative solutions or ideas.
4. Failing To Evaluate Risks And Making Faulty Judgments
Instead of creating an environment where an idea and its potential drawbacks are thoroughly assessed, groupthink can result in the failure to evaluate risks. By downplaying and ignoring warning signs due to group members being unwilling to swim against the current, there is a lack of open and honest discussion when it comes to ideas. This is particularly threatening for innovation, since a large part of iterating an idea involves assessing the hypothetical downsides associated with it, objectively.
Identifying And Addressing Groupthink
Groupthink is not always something that is identified immediately, as many people might merely think a consensus was reached. Particularly in environments marked by biased leadership or in a top-down culture where one’s position within the company hierarchy determines decision-making power, groupthink can be fatal to company-wide innovation efforts.
But how can you identify even the slightest nuances of groupthink, and more importantly, how do you stem it from infiltrating the innovation culture at your firm? Here are a few measures you can implement to prevent this phenomenon from encroaching:
1. Use Appropriate Decision-Making Methods
Using appropriate decision-making methods ensures each idea or initiative is critically evaluated. One method that can be used is the “six thinking hats” theory, which uses different thinking styles to determine the validity of an idea. Or you can use the process of storyboarding, where the flow of an idea is organized before it is executed so it can be evaluated from all sides.
2. Assign The Role Of A Challenger
Another symptom of groupthink is overconfidence, whereby group members develop an inflated sense of their collective wisdom. Assigning someone to challenge the group’s ideas and assumptions by actively helping teams poke holes in their plans is a way to combat this.
3. Promote Psychological Safety
When employees find themselves in an environment in which they feel unsafe to voice their opinions openly, they are more likely to jump on the bandwagon and conform instead of standing out and voicing their concerns.
It’s important to create a culture that embraces mistakes and sees failures as learning opportunities. To do so, leaders should play an active role by encouraging and modeling open and inclusive decision-making processes, including an open feedback culture and making room for contrary opinions.
4. Implement An Accessible Innovation Program
Implementing an innovation program that is accessible to all employees gives everyone the opportunity to express their ideas and engage in the iterative validation process. Consider implementing a bottom-up innovation program that makes innovation available to everyone in the company, regardless of hierarchy, expertise or previous know-how. Through various processes, each idea giver should be offered the freedom and support to prove their idea as valuable to the company. Such an innovation program actively dispels groupthink due to each innovator taking responsibility and accountability for their own idea.
Groupthink can hinder creativity and promote conformity, which ultimately slows down a company’s innovation efforts. Thus, it is important to recognize groupthink and address it appropriately using various strategies. Whether it is during your next brainstorming session or morning team briefing, make sure you’re able to recognize the warning signs and respond accordingly.