Does your design team suffer from “Group Think?”

Wednesday, November 17th, 2010 by Robert Cravotta

I have had the opportunity to work with many teams of excellent people. Over the years, I developed a way to measure the health of a company by examining how team members interacted with each other – most notably – how often do people voice their disagreements? I was amazed when I first realized there was a positive correlation between the amount of arguments you could hear between team members and the health of the company that we all worked for. This correlation, at least in my personal experience, held up across different teams, different companies, and different industries.

When I started as an engineer, it was common to hear, and participate in passionate discussions between the merits and faults of different approaches to various design problems we needed to solve. The lively discussions transcended seniority in that everyone passionately participated and everyone’s voice was heard. It was never a foregone conclusion that the grey beards were always right and that the “greenies” were always wrong. In fact, in plenty of cases, the junior members provided valuable contributions to the eventual trade-offs that the team did make.

In contrast, when the health of the company was suffering, the tone in the hallways changed. The number and intensity of the lively discussions would taper off. By the time that dissenting ideas stopped being offered, the company’s poor health was visible to everyone. It was especially during the several down times I have lived through that I learned to recognize the reemergence of lively discussions as a harbinger of better times.

It wasn’t until I had experienced a couple of these cycles that I learned about this concept called Group Think. From my observations, the most important aspect of Group Think is the suppression of contradictory ideas. It is during these times of low levels of disagreement that a group does not explore the problem space robustly enough. The team members are less willing to take the risk of disagreeing with the leadership. This increases the risks that the team will miss an important detail that leads to an expensive failure and fix process.

This relationship between open disagreements and lively discussions has been so strong during my career that the obvious presence or lack of such discussions plays a key role for me when I am considering joining a company or group. Does your team suffer from Group Think? Have you discovered other ways to measure the health of a group or company? Have you discovered ways to revive a group into the more “confrontational” means of working together? Or does your experience differ from mine as to the value of lively groups?


2 Responses to “Does your design team suffer from “Group Think?””

  1. BenE says:

    This is true, not necessarily against the defined company leadership, but those who react badly against criticism. When a designer reacts badly to negative feedback and do not take on board other people’s opinions the other designers may feel unable to raise issues which eventually raise themselves later down the line (often at much more cost!).

    The best designs I’ve been involved in have had healthy debates with other members over the merits of different methods, feeling free to talk about any issues and modify the design without prejudice, and yes often the newbie asks the most difficult questions like “why are we doing this?”.

  2. Leigh Harwood says:

    Groupthink, unfortunately, is a depressingly glowing reflection of modern times in general as far as I can detect. Most people suffer with it or from it, depending upon their personal levels of resistance to it or fortitude in expressing contradictory viewpoints in defiance of authority or leadership. From personal experience, groupthink can be summed up in two words: COMFORT ZONE! With an increasing emphasis on ‘teamwork’ in today’s workplace in general, little room is left for those who thrive on the ideals of individuality over collective understanding or knowledge in arriving at certain viewpoints on any given issue. ‘Groupthink’ is thus less confrontational because it presumes on the basis of it’s own self-awarded merits that contrary ideas are less valid in comparison to the received wisdom of the collective. Furthemore, authority as a whole and the leadership structures that shape and define such authority – often resent negative feedback from individual members within a team – mainly because the idea of an ‘individual’ being ‘right’ over the ‘collective co-operation of ideas’ – undermines the very ideal of teamwork. For example, many eminent scientists around the globe subscribe to the belief of ‘man-made global warming’. There is a consensus, they claim, of thousands of scientists who all subscribe to the same belief. However, in reality, does ‘consensus’ or ‘groupthink’ constitute ‘the truth’ or ‘being right’. In reality, there are also thousands of world-renowned scientists who openly dissent from this view and strongly voice independent criticisms from their respective fields. These people are often labelled as ‘climate deniers’, simply because they voice an alternative viewpoint and understanding of the climate. In essence, they are attacked because they have broken free of the establisment! Groupthink demands a collective take on things so as to appear unfloundering in it’s stance – whereas individuality demands a free recongition of all ideas regardless of the fallout. In truth, groupthink provides great comfort to those who otherwise lack the strength to think for themselves or find an easier life to be gained from toeing-the-line than to stand apart and voice their true feelings.

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