Change is natural and “the only constant in life…”, François de la Rochefoucauld. The most successful individuals and organizations are those which embrace it. Yet even as it is the most constant factor it is also the most feared.
Existential philosopher Jean–Paul Sartre, would say that we make decisions of free will and are free of any influence but I disagree. Our decisions are not made in a vacuum. Our lives exist within the context of culture that influences the decisions that we make and our ability to adapt and embrace change. Two concepts which explain this are paradigms and groupthink (Irving Janis 1972).
These are common topics in business school lecture halls. We cover case studies such as the Bay of Pigs and the Space Shuttle Challenge, as well as countless cases of corporate failure such as Enron and WorldCom. So how is it that we get caught in the trap of groupthink? The answer in most cases is it is difficult to see when groupthink or paradigms, are affecting us. There are eight primary symptoms of groupthink which are:
1. Illusion of Invulnerability: Members ignore obvious danger, take extreme risk, and are overly optimistic.
2. Collective Rationalization: Members discredit and explain away warning contrary to groupthinking.
3. Illusion of Morality: Members believe their decisions are morally correct, ignoring the ethical consequences of their decisions.
4. Excessive Stereotyping: The group constructs negative stereotypes of rivals outside the group.
5. Pressure for Conformity: Members pressure any in the group who express arguments against the group’s stereotypes, illusions, or commitments, viewing such opposition as disloyalty.
6. Self-Censorship: Members withhold their dissenting views and counter-arguments.
7. Illusion of Unanimity: Members perceive falsely that everyone agrees with the group’s decision; silence is seen as consent.
8. Mindguards: Some members appoint themselves to the role of protecting the group from adverse information that might threaten group complacency.
It is not hard not to be caught by at least one or two of these. The larger the organization the greater the momentum and the easier it is to become intoxicated with our position and forget to perform reality checks. James Ogilvy noted this, “being-towards death”, as one of five Principles of Existential Strategy, i.e. no one is too big to fail, to die, to go bankrupt.
Even so, going against organizational norms can be scary. We have all been in a situation when our views contradict the group or worse management. Just before the US auto bailout, a CFO at one of the big three US manufacturers was quoted as saying “there is no financial incentive to produce more fuel efficient cars.” Imagine being the one who suggests developing a hybrid or electric car when the CFO believes there is no “economic incentive”.
Setting a Good Course
It is not hard to see why in many instances it is easier to do what has been done before. The problem with this is by the time we realize change is required it is too late. Here is an anecdote that helps illustrate the dangers of paradigms. It is a radio conversation released by the Chief of Naval Operations:
Voice 1: Please divert your course 15 degrees to the north to avoid collision.
Voice 2: Recommend you divert your course 15 degrees to the south to avoid a collision.
Voice 1: This is the Captain of a US Navy ship. I say again, divert your course.
Voice 2: No. I say again, you divert your course.
Voice 1: This is the Aircraft Carrier Enterprise. We are a large warship of the
US Navy. Divert your course now.
Voice 2: This is a lighthouse. Your call.
Like an aircraft carrier, large successful companies, once in motion find it increasingly difficult to change directions. Imagine your organization as the warship in the narrative above. How much time do you think you will need to avoid your lighthouse?
Looking to avoid hitting a lighthouse, Janis, I. L. & Mann, L. in Decision making: A psychological analysis of conflict, choice, and commitment offer several recommendations on how to overcome groupthink. The concepts include:
1. Assign the role of critical evaluator to each member. The leaders support this by openly accepting criticism of their work.
2. Key members should adopt impartial positions when assigning tasks.
3. Routinely set up several outside groups to work on the same questions.
4. Discuss the ‘deliberations’ with other trusted individuals not in the group.
5. Invite one or more outside expert to meetings. These experts should be encouraged to challenge the current thought process.
6. At every ‘general meeting’, one person should be nominated as ‘devils advocate’. (Kennedy used this during the Cuban Missile Crisis, after the Bay of Pigs).
7. Pay attention to all the warning signs and document alternative scenarios.
8. Divide into groups to meet, then consolidate the outputs and work through the differences.
9. The ‘second-chance’ meeting where members can present their residual doubts, re-think the entire issue and then make a decision.
Groupthink and paradigms can be quiet killers. They inhibit our ability to recognize the need for and ability to capitalize on change. The easiest solution to paradigms and groupthink is awareness. If we are conscious of these potential gremlins working to derail our potential success then we stand a better chance of overcoming them.
Eric Talbot is with Epiphany Insights, a marketing analytics consultancy helping companies increase sales and profitability by advancing the use of data and insights via evidence-based decision making. Prior to Epiphany Insights, he was VP of Strategy & Insights with Univision and is a healthcare industry veteran with nearly 20 years of consulting experience.