“Creativity is thinking up new things. Innovation is doing new things.”

— Theodore Levitt

“All great deeds and all great thoughts have a ridiculous beginning.”

— Albert Camus

“Creativity is contagious. Pass it on.”

— Albert Einstein

“Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric.”

— Bertrand Russell

William H. Whyte Jr. made an important distinction among group-thinkers – those driven by “instinctive conformity” and those driven by “rationalized conformity”. The former is built-in while the latter is volitional. Instinctive behaviors are usually survival-based while rationalized behaviors can be readily generated, mismanaged, and misdirected by leaders and popular members.

Instinctive conformity or groupthink is generally good – or not?

Survival tends to be a positive outcome so anything that supports it seems good. But what if the instinctively conforming group decides to follow a leader off the cliff, as is rumored to have happened a couple or so times before in history?

Maybe conformity is good regardless of whether it is instinctive or rationalized but only so long as the group leadership is wise and beneficial. Leaders can still make major mistakes but it helps if they do so with their hearts in the right place.

Suppose that the group is effectively leaderless and develops its common direction internally through mysterious interactions among group members. The group can still head right on over the cliff but it has no leaders to blame. The group of course will not blame itself. Assuming there are survivors.

Conformity or internally-consistent group action – i.e., groupthink – seems valuable, whether instinctive or rationalized, if the group’s direction and motivation are sound. So how do you get a group’s direction and motivation to be “sound”, whatever that means in practice?

Clearly, “sound” depends on the group’s purpose or goal, and especially its group process. A single group may persuade itself to head over the cliff in one context while generating an effective enabling and achieving outcome in another context.

What the heck is “groupthink” anyhow?

Wikipedia offers a bit of history of the term:

“William H. Whyte Jr. derived the term from George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, and popularized it in 1952 in Fortune magazine:”

“Groupthink being a coinage – and, admittedly, a loaded one – a working definition is in order. We are not talking about mere instinctive conformity – it is, after all, a perennial failing of mankind. What we are talking about is a rationalized conformity – an open, articulate philosophy which holds that group values are not only expedient but right and good as well.”

Irving Janis pioneered the initial research on the groupthink theory. He does not cite Whyte, but uses the term by analogy with “doublethink” and similar terms that were part of the newspeak vocabulary in the novel Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell. He initially defined groupthink as follows:”

“I use the term groupthink as a quick and easy way to refer to the mode of thinking that persons engage in when concurrence-seeking becomes so dominant in a cohesive ingroup that it tends to override realistic appraisal of alternative courses of action. Groupthink is a term of the same order as the words in the newspeak vocabulary George Orwell used in his dismaying world of 1984. In that context, groupthink takes on an invidious connotation. Exactly such a connotation is intended, since the term refers to a deterioration in mental efficiency, reality testing and moral judgments as a result of group pressures.”

“He went on to write: The main principle of groupthink, which I offer in the spirit of Parkinson’s Law, is this: “The more amiability and esprit de corps there is among the members of a policy-making ingroup, the greater the danger that independent critical thinking will be replaced by groupthink, which is likely to result in irrational and dehumanizing actions directed against outgroups”.”

“Janis set the foundation for the study of groupthink starting with his research in the American Soldier Project where he studied the effect of extreme stress on group cohesiveness.”

Groupthink seems to be good and bad

My take on this lengthy explanation is that group conformity or groupthink is determined by a combination of group process, context (e.g., stressful or routine), and purpose. This means that groupthink can be good in some cases and bad in others.

It can be very good in achieving an important goal that requires all participants to be fully onboard – especially vital in military contexts – but not so much where the group’s purpose is to define or understand a challenging situation.

A mismatch between group purpose and group process may actually be the main source of so-called groupthink weaknesses.

Effective execution of an understood-and-agreed-upon goal requires strong group conformity, or consensus, and shared effort. Groupthink good.

Where the goal is as yet undefined or not well-enough understood for action, groupthink can be deadly. This situation however is where innovation and creativity live. Groupthink bad.

You need an open group process for creativity and innovation to flourish

Groups can be wonderful sources of great ideas

Groups are not inherently creative but interactions among group members can generate some truly amazing and creative ideas. I have participated in literally hundreds of such group processes and recall so many instances of valuable ideas flowing from individuals interacting.

The lone creator such as Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla is unfortunately too rare and hard to manage for almost every business. Very few businesses have such people to draw upon. Most of us have to rely heavily on group process interactions for creativity and innovation.

This is where groupthink can really cause some serious mischief.

A creative, innovative group process is largely unstructured and open. Fresh thinking is encouraged. Divergent views are welcomed and discussed. Valuable outcomes may well develop post-meeting. Groupthink may not be a factor at all.

Killer groupthink strikes

Some organizations, you will be surprised to hear, are simply not creative in their essentials. Strong, top-down management can be obsessively focused on goals and execution and unable to accommodate open, free-flowing thoughts. Some especially powerful group members can force the same kind of anti-creative pressures and process. Internal group agendas can also interfere with creativeness.

Group leaders may not fully appreciate the different process requirements needed for effective creativity and innovation. They may see themselves as a consensus driver rather than as a process facilitator.

Groups themselves, without a designated leader or facilitator, may be just as effective at killing creativity and innovation. Group members may decide to go-along-to-get-along by setting aside personal ideas and adopting whatever seems to be the sense of the group. Some may simply stay quiet in the interests of “peace” and “uniformity”.

Groupthinkers maybe?

Intentional killer-groupthink behaviors

There are often agenda-driven members who actively try to direct the group and to force acceptance of their own ideas. The group itself may exhibit destructive behaviors, such as:

  1. Illusions of invulnerability lead members of the group to be overly optimistic and engage in risk-taking.
  2. Rationalising prevents members from reconsidering their beliefs and causes them to ignore warning signs.
  3. Stereotyping leads members of the in-group to ignore or even demonise out-group members who may oppose or challenge the group’s ideas.
  4. Self-censorship causes people who might have doubts to hide their fears or misgivings.
  5. “Mind-guards” act as self-appointed censors to hide problematic information from the group.
  6. Illusions of unanimity lead members to believe that everyone is in agreement and feels the same way.
  7. Direct pressure to conform is often placed on members who pose questions, and those who question the group are often seen as disloyal or traitorous.

Stressful times encourage groupthink

Times of great stress, as most of us have been experiencing lately, can be powerful motivators for stress-reducing behavior. Group processes may value harmony and coherence over accurate analysis and critical thinking by individual members. It may discourage individual members from expressing their own thoughts and concerns and unquestioningly following the word of the leader.

Workplace.com offers examples of where stress-driven groupthink is actually appropriate and constructive:

“Groupthink can happen when people are under pressure or need to make quick decisions, so the need to reach consensus, right or wrong, overcomes everything else. Or a group might be under some sort of threat which makes people accept decisions with which they wouldn’t usually agree. In these situations, groups will want to reduce decisional stress – and to do this, they’ll try to agree quickly with as little argument as possible.”

Other causes of groupthink that are not usually productive include:

Leadership — individual leadership styles can be more likely to give rise to groupthink. Janis talked about what he called directive leaders – those who are wedded to their views to the exclusion of others. Indeed, a closed leadership style, where the leader states their opinion early on and makes it clear they don’t want to consider alternative views or courses of action, is conducive to groupthink.”

Isolation — groupthink can develop when, for whatever reason, teams are cut off from information coming from outside that might influence or change their decisions.”

Homogeneity — a group that’s like a club, where people know each other very well, or where everyone comes from the same type of background and has similar ideas, can give rise to groupthink. Teams that lack diversity can make assumptions about many things and lack alternative perspectives to challenge biases. Overlapping roles might make people unsure of their contribution to the team, other than mere agreement.”

Over-cohesiveness — cohesiveness in a team is desirable, but it’s a matter of degree. When members of a group become too friendly, it can be difficult for people to raise dissenting views for fear of offending each other and damaging the group’s harmony.”

These behaviors and situations seem very common but they are often highly destructive where creativity and innovation are vital.

Avoiding or eliminating groupthink

There are many ideas for addressing groupthink either after it surfaces or before it becomes a problem. The section on Related Reading below has a number of ideas, some of which may well be of practical use to you.

Bottom line:

Groupthink is part of our humanity, our survival instincts, but it can also be a killer in business situations where a group process is aimed at creativity (ideas) and innovation (ideas into action). While groupthink can actually be good and effective for executing plans where purpose is defined and understood, it is often very damaging when the goal or context is not yet defined or adequately understood. And purpose may well become visible only as part of the innovation-action process.

Quickbase.com offers “6 Ways to Avoid Groupthink”:

“How can organizations and leaders ensure that teams get along – but don’t lapse into groupthink? Here are some tips from experts:”

“Plan for it. Art Petty, founder and principal of the Art Petty Group, says any risk plan should include a way to monitor and reduce emerging groupthink.  It doesn’t mean you think the group will fail – but that it’s preferable to tackle the problem head on rather than ignore it.”

“Encourage debate. As Dattner mentions, Kennedy learned that getting his own way with no debate might feel good for a short time – but the end result can be terrible. Leaders need to speak up and let team members know why it’s so important that ideas and opinions be challenged. “Within businesses and governments, happy talk is common, but it can be countered with some version of, ‘Now tell me something I need to know, even if I don’t want to hear it,’” advise Cass R. Sunstein and Reid Hastie, authors of “Wiser: Getting Beyond Groupthink to Make Groups Smarter.””

“Look for different personalities. Dr. Meredith Belbin contends there needs to be at least eight team members of various personalities, such as the unorthodox, creative problem solver; the person who thrives on pressure; and the colleague who judges options objectively. Look for those who have different styles of thinking and communicating.”

“Acknowledge biases in data. Leaders may believe they eliminate groupthink by relying on data. But if “analysts cherry-pick information to suit managers’ expectations, managers will be reassured about their decisions and see no need to improve them. And once misleading insights are data-approved, they are even harder to challenge,” note Emre Soyer and Robin M. Hogarth in Harvard Business Review. Leaders need to make sure they don’t reveal their “hope and dreams” to data scientists who are hired to collect and mine information, they advise.”

“Reach out. Invite people from other departments, especially those who will be affected by decisions being made. Even if they can’t attend the meeting, reach out to others within the organization to get their feedback – they won’t be influenced by the group’s ideas and may be more willing to offer independent opinions and ideas.”

“Know that speed can kill. It may be a relief if a decision is reached quickly, but don’t embrace it too quickly. Was there real debate? Did everyone offer an opinion, or did a few influencers appear to lead the group decision? If a leader believes there wasn’t enough debate, delay a decision and ask that more research be done.”

“Finally, remember that while collaboration is highly promoted in workplaces today, sometimes leaders need to back off so that it doesn’t lead to groupthink and less-creative ideas.”

Highfive.com, a meeting technology provider, has “8 Steps to Avoid Groupthink”:

“Step 1: Require everyone in the group to evaluate ideas critically:
This step is easily performed by asking everyone in the group to take a quiet moment to jot down both pros and cons of ideas that have been submitted before they are discussed. If you are still worried about employees feeling free enough to express themselves you can use a polling app that allows people in the group to vote or comment on topics anonymously.”

“Step 2: If you’re leading the group, keep your opinions to yourself:
The trouble with being a leader is that your opinions have a big influence on others and timid employees will think twice before dissenting with your opinion or submitting an idea that is better than yours. If your opinions lead a discussion, you will invariably miss great opportunities to discover individual talents and strengths in your group that may prove critical to future successes.”

“Step 3: If you’re the group leader, consider being a no-show:
Because body language is nearly impossible to hide, you don’t have to say anything for people in the group to know how you feel about a topic, so don’t give them the opportunity. Let members know you value their ideas so much that you plan to be absent from certain group meetings where your presence will excessively influence the outcome.”

“Step 4: Consider a team approach:
If your group is large, consider randomly dividing folks into smaller groups to work on the same problem. Not only does this approach foster camaraderie between employees, it fuels a competitive atmosphere where the best ideas can win.”

“Step 5: Thoroughly examine all alternatives:
Once your group has compiled a list of ideas or solutions, submit those ideas to a standardized method of evaluation that answers questions such as: How does this idea support the goal? What are the costs? What are the risks? Etc.”

“Step 6: Get an outsider’s perspective:
As your group begins evaluating various ideas and solutions, assign each member a task of getting an outsider’s opinion. If the solutions being discussed are sensitive, then ask them to talk to a specific and trusted leader inside the company.”

“Step 7:  Consult an outside expert:
If a project or solution has components that run outside the expertise of the group, consider inviting an outside expert to a meeting to participate in the discussion of the group’s proposed solutions. Outsiders often provide a refreshing change to group dynamics, and expert opinions enable everyone in the group to learn from an expert’s insights and wisdom.”

“Step 8: Select one person at random to be the devil’s advocate at each meeting:
Once meeting attendees are all present, draw straws to see who will serve as the devil’s advocate for the meeting. The person who is chosen will be charged with “thinking like an enemy” and countering all popular ideas and opinions in the meeting in order to encourage healthy debate and test the strength of opposing arguments.”

Phil McKinney, a former executive of HP and CableLabs who blogs about innovation, creativity, and leadership, has a somewhat different take on groupthink management:

“Combating groupthink has been the subject of a lot of research since Janis introduced the idea in 1972. While it can be insidious and hard to change once it’s taken root, groupthink can be fought—it just takes concrete strategies that ensure dissenting opinions are heard.”

“Formalize the questioning process. Groups should organize regular feedback reviews where each member is expected to come up with a reservation or problem regarding the project or problem being worked on. These discussions can really get members to question the group’s decisions. The fact that the objections are mandated by the group rules removes the threat of disapproval by other members.”

“Institute anonymity. There should always be a way for group members to anonymously raise concerns about ideas or solutions the group comes up with. Many people, regardless of group cohesiveness, feel uncomfortable bringing up objections in a group, especially when they’re less experienced or newer members. There could be a document where group members can contribute questions and concerns anonymously, or a designated team member with whom others should bring these up.”

“Bring in outsiders. Chances are, you won’t have an in-group expert on every aspect of a project. Bringing in outside specialists to investigate the group’s ideas can ensure that nothing is overlooked or ignored if it doesn’t fit neatly into the group’s vision.”

“Allow extra time. Often, tight deadlines can exacerbate the problems of groupthink because it’s easier to just “get it done” in the easiest way than to really take a close look at the work. Extra time should always be built into projects for decisions to be examined and reconsidered before anything is permanent.”