Avoiding Groupthink

Making Better Decisions By Avoiding Common Pitfalls in Groups

I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall during the discussions at Expensify recently.

Chances are you were probably one of the 10 million people who received an email from their CEO leading up to the U.S. presidential election. He used his company email list to call for everyone to vote for Joe Biden.

Now I’m not here to comment one way or another on politics in the U.S. We’ve had more than enough of that. But I found this move particularly interesting.

As a technology company based in San Francisco, it’s easy to believe that many of the leaders and employees probably lean toward the political left. So endorsing Joe Biden was probably not a stretch for many. Especially against Donald Trump.

But where it gets interesting is using their entire user database to send an emotional, politically charged email to unsuspecting users. From comments I’ve read from their CEO, he seems to have assumed it was imperative they act in order to do their part as a company, but also that the fallout would be negligible.

I wasn’t in the meetings where they discussed it, but I’ve been in similar meetings. I can imagine how it went. The CEO was deeply passionate about using the company platform to send a message. He has been following the polling for weeks and feels the need to do more. He has the idea to send a pleading email to every contact at Expensify. It is his moral duty!

Maybe a few people in the group have some hesitations, but no one is willing to voice them. Why would you defend Donald Trump after all? Do you want to be that person in the executive team? And even if it’s not to defend Trump, if you raise concerns, it may appear as not agreeing with the morality of the cause. Maybe you want to question whether it is in the best interest of your users, company and employees. Maybe you want to question the assumption that no one will jump ship. Maybe no one in Silicon Valley will leave, but there are plenty of companies in other locations that just need a reason to look at their contract with you to move elsewhere. While these risks may be worth it, you should still talk about them. But you stay quiet.

We know what happened, and it was fascinating to watch the discussion and backlash on various platforms. It was also interesting to watch competitors in the comment sections getting in contact quickly. It rarely takes much as anyone in the SaaS industry will tell you.

I don’t know for certain, but I’m fairly confident Expensify fell victim to groupthink. A group that felt its cause was morally superior, self-censored and pressured any doubters, and felt invulnerable to repercussions. All classic symptoms of groupthink. How much did it move the needle? Was there a way to know? You may fully agree with what they did, or you may disagree. Maybe it works out, maybe it doesn’t. Regardless, those are often enormous risks that we shouldn’t take blindly.

So how can we avoid falling into the trap of groupthink?

Avoiding the Traps of Groupthink

We’ve identified the various traps of groupthink over the past few weeks. From identifying Groupthink to Groupthink in Organizations and Groupthink in Product Teams. Now we will take a closer look at avoiding falling into these common traps.

Good Leadership

Picture this scenario. You need to make an important decision about priorities. A new opportunity has come up and displaced some existing work. So you go into a meeting with key decision-makers. After some discussion about the problem, you go around the room to decide how to prioritize the work. The executive and the salesperson for the new business are passionate about it, so they talk about it first and how important it is and time sensitive it needs to be. Everyone agrees with that assessment as you go around the room, so you now have your new direction.

Or do you?

This is a classic trap, and one that I knew we could fall into recently. So in a discussion, I sent out a questionnaire before our meeting to get everyone’s opinion about the order of priorities. I wanted to understand what each person thought before we discussed and before other leaders or participants could sway things one way or another.

This is an important tactic for avoiding groupthink, especially for leaders. If you are a leader, before you tilt the scale, you need to understand what others are thinking. Because, like Expensify above, there is a good chance that your enthusiasm for an idea may lead to a specific direction whether or not everyone else agrees with that. So understanding that before you speak is critical.

Outside Expertise

Any single person can be wrong. You can be wrong. Your team can be wrong.

It’s easy to get into our own heads. We’re often the experts in our area, especially if we’ve been doing something for a long time. That can be an amazing thing, but also a dangerous thing. Because with expertise, we bring bias. Especially within our businesses. We have a stake in certain outcomes, whether or not we realize it.

In my current company, we have a vested interest in people being in the office. So that led many people to think, especially early in Covid-19, that the crisis would pass quickly and people would return to their offices soon.

A great way to avoid groupthink is to get outside expertise. Not a single outside expert, but a variety of outside opinions averaged together. A variety of voices that can help you understand different sides of the problem. If you are a product manager, listening to your users is critical here. But also listening to other experts in the industry.

Even if we can’t get outside experts, we can take an outside view. Daniel Kahneman, in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, famously recognized this when working on curriculum and a textbook for the Israeli Ministry of Education. The group was incredibly optimistic about their timeline, expecting to finish within two years. Kahneman then asked one of the group if anyone undertaking a similar project had succeeded that quickly. The answer was that most groups took an average of 7 years, if they ever finished at all. That was a hard realization for the group, and one they should have heeded, but ultimately didn’t.

The key was that the group took an outside view. What had other groups done? What was an outside perspective rather than our group perspective?

Deliberate Debate

I am a huge proponent of debate on teams and within organizations. Cultivating a culture of debate is one of the best things you can do to foster creativity and avoid groupthink.

I wrote about the pitfall of not having a culture of openness previously. But how can you create deliberate debate?

One way is to create a red team. In one organization I worked in, we had the practice of deliberately creating red teams, whether groups or individuals, who had the responsibility to thoughtfully oppose big decisions and analyze ways they could go wrong. Often they would be known as supporters of the decision, but we expected them to look deeply at how things could go wrong and bring all of those things to the surface.

In another organization, we already had a culture of debate, so you could expect everyone to take the role of the red team. That meant that for big decisions or proposals you’d have to come prepared to discuss and defend. It was not meant to be a personal attack, but to flesh out weaknesses before they became colossal problems. And it was successful. It was incredibly stressful initially, but I learned to love those debates and discussions. I became my own red team, looking for weaknesses before others could so I could strengthen my own proposals.

“What Are We Missing” Mindset

I don’t do a lot of driving right now, but when I was commuting each day, I tended to drive a little faster than the speed limit. Some of you might do the same. But whenever I was passing a group of cars going a lot slower than I was going, I always asked myself, “what am I missing?” It worried me that they might know something that I didn’t, like there might be a highway patrol ahead.

We should constantly ask ourselves, “what are we missing?” That’s excellent advice for driving down the road, especially if you’re speeding, but it’s better advice for a group or team. What are you overlooking? What aren’t you thinking about?

This goes into becoming our own red team. We need to identify potential pitfalls before they become issues. If you’re ever in a room or group where everyone agrees, pause the discussion because you’re undoubtedly missing something.

Methods For Decisions

Having a method for making decisions is a key for avoiding groupthink.

On good product teams, this is a product discovery process. It’s easy to give into the loudest voice or the highest paid person’s opinion. But if you have a good process in place, you don’t fall victim to that kind of thinking.

In one product I was working on, we had a solid process in place. The executive, who had incredible experience in the area, wondered why we weren’t doing things in a certain way. I pulled out the user research I had done along with the data we had collected to show why we were doing it differently, and showed that despite what some people were saying, the way we were doing it would be a better experience for users and better for our company. That was the end of the discussion.

With good processes in place, you don’t fall victim to groupthink, but can apply the right methods and come to the right conclusions.

Team Dynamics

One of the biggest problems in groupthink is the group itself. If you have a highly cohesive group, you are at risk for groupthink. Especially if that group has been together for a long time.

I’ve seen this firsthand. Teams that have worked together for a long time with similar industry experience in the same company (like for the last decade) are ripe for groupthink.

The best thing you can do is inject diversity into that group. That includes outside perspectives, new to the company or new to the group, and unique experiences and backgrounds. But it also includes changing how the group functions. If you are a leader observing a group, you need to ensure you are getting the right dynamic. If possible, you want to get people willing to debate and express opinions, as well as people who can balance the social interactions of the group to get the best outcomes and participation.

Research shows that women will be critical to this, and my personal experience has proven that out. I was recently in a group that was tailored for achieving an outcome. It had a perfect mix of new perspectives and old experience. It had varying disciplines, men and women, and different temperaments. It was amazing the results we achieved in a short time.

Groupthink happens to all of us. But as we learn to recognize it, we can put guards in place to avoid the most common pitfalls. As leaders, we can help our teams by creating the right environments for the best decisions and outcomes. And when we see groupthink happening, we can help correct it before we email 10 million people or launch the next New Coke.

Good Reads and Listens

10 Product Shout-Outs - A Thanksgiving Special (podcast) - In the spirit of Thanksgiving, we give 10 shout-outs (and a few bonuses) to some products we're using and love. From apps on our computers, to apps on our phones, to the best cup of hot chocolate, settle in for a holiday treat as we talk good product and design.

The Art and Science of Creating Good Luck (podcast) - A good podcast episode on serendipity. Some people seem lucky while others don’t. But how often are we creating luck? And how much of that depends on recognizing it when it happens?

What Was on the Menu at the First Thanksgiving (article) - What was on the menu? Apparently a lot. Some things you’d expect, and some I didn’t realize. I’ll pass on the meat pie, but let’s see if we can get lobster back for sure.

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