Overcoming Groupthink: Invite Creative Ideas

    June 30, 2006

You are probably familiar with the concept of groupthink. It’s where all members of a meeting, a task force, or even an entire company hold the same opinion on a topic.

While maintaining a solid front and sense of purpose may often be a good thing for a business, very often that monolithic point of view held is the wrong one.

The difficulty isn’t always with the decision and its subsequent execution. The problem is usually a result of the decision making process itself. Groupthink ideas are often the result of pressure, either from above from superiors, or peer pressure from other members of the team. While many times the general opinion may be correct, all too often it’s wrong entirely. Because of the imposed limits on new ideas and solutions that vary from those of the group, many ruinous business disasters are the expected result.

The process is the problem. The business ownership or top management calls a meeting to allegedly discuss ideas for moving the company forward. None too subtle hints are provided as to the direction desired and the method to reach that destination. Should a member of the team suggest a different approach, that idea will be squashed, regardless of its merit. Very often, pressure is placed on staff members to not speak up at all, out of fear of dire personal consequences. The result is groupthink. Everyone accepts and internalizes the predestined management plan; whether for the good of the organization, or not.

Should the inevitable problems arise, staff members will be assigned to treat the symptoms. Scapegoats will almost always be targeted and perhaps even removed from the company altogether. Individuals with creative ideas are not the problem company illness. The real disease is the company culture of imposed ideology and a lack of welcoming to fresh ideas. The nail that sticks out in those types of organzations will soon be hammered right back down again. Better to go along with the general consensus than risk unemployment.

To counter groupthink in your business, it’s important to always remain open to new and creative ideas. While time proven methods will work on many problems, it only takes a few crises where they fail to sink the company. When meetings are held to brainstorm ideas, keep the judgement out of the initial idea creation process. It’s essential as well to prevent a chosen management plan from taintig the creative process. If the team gets a clear message that their superiors prefer a certain course of action chosen, their idea generation process will be short circuited. Groupthink will set in and top management will get its way.

It’s important to understand that the preferred decisions of senior management are not always the wrong ones. Often, they are the right way to go to achieve success. Where the process becomes dangerous, for the health of the company, is when no new ideas are welcomed, and where their advocates have their careers stalled or ended.

Decision making works best when everyone has a share in developing the final business plan. That means that unpopular ideas and objections may arise. Listen to the dissenters. They may be the bringers of wisdom and guide the company on a more successful journey.

Don’t hammer down the creative thinkers. The strength of an organization is its people, many of whom have ideas that may not be part of the current company culture. As a result, they might seem like they are simply rocking the boat. Welcome their dissent and avoid the trap of going along with the crowd. Those strange sounding ideas might be what makes your company a success.

Avoid groupthink. It doesn’t pay to be a lemming as stepping off that cliff only leads straight down.

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