Groupthink in Product Teams
Creating the Right Team Dynamics to Create the Best Product Experiences
Who could have ever thought that was a good idea?
There are so many products I ask that question about. You probably do too. One classic example (forgive the pun) is New Coke. And what makes it great is how it was riddled with groupthink throughout - on both sides.
For those unfamiliar with the story, New Coke was introduced in April 1985. Coca-Cola, the flagship drink, had been losing ground for years, so the company decided to change its 99-year-old formula to make it sweeter and more modern.
It was a bold move they had tested and researched extensively. Unfortunately, it was almost as if the team working on it had decided it was the right move and was willing to ignore information to the contrary. There were many focus group participants who hated the idea of changing the formula and were passionate about it. But they rationalized those opinions away before the launch.
The executives in charge almost seemed to think they were infallible in what they were doing. Not only that this was the right move, but they were sure enough to bet the entire company on it. They didn’t position New Coke as a new offering alongside Coke and Diet Coke, but a wholesale replacement of Coca-Cola.
Once they had made the move and launched New Coke, it was initially well-received by most of America. We remember the whole thing now as a fiasco, and there were plenty of diehard Coke fans who were shattered by the change, but most people liked the fresh taste. That didn’t stop the jokes and strong opinions, however. And it led to mounting pressure on Coca-Cola.
Just like the dissent that had been quieted with the introduction of New Coke initially, as the tide turned against New Coke, any support of it within the Coca-Cola company also became self-censored. Those leaders who preferred New Coke could not voice that opinion because of the peer pressure mounting to return to the old Coke formula.
In the end, New Coke went down in history as one of the biggest blunders for a product. After 79 days, Coca-Cola reversed itself and reintroduced its classic Coca-Cola, killing New Coke. There are many lessons to learn from it, one of which is that suppressing information or dissenting views will always lead to worse outcomes.
My opinions with cola aren’t nearly as strong. I personally prefer Pepsi Zero, but also like Coke Zero and Diet Pepsi. You can take Diet Coke and throw it in the dumpster. Maybe I do have some strong opinions.
Regardless, we’ve all probably seen or worked on teams that have had issues with groupthink. And our products and product experiences suffer because of it.
Groupthink in Product Development
We’ve seen how groupthink impacts organizations. And from New Coke, how it can derail a tried-and-true consumer product. So how else does groupthink manifest in product development?
For those unfamiliar with the term, HiPPO stands for Highest Paid Person’s Opinion. The HiPPO is usually a leader or an executive with authority in your area or even outside of it. And when they speak, everyone listens and obeys, even if it’s not the best course of action.
We can (and probably will) write a lot more about HiPPOs. But for now, this is one way that groupthink can take over our decision process. If the CEO or SVP of marketing is in your meeting, and says that they would like to see the application done in a certain way, it often takes the rest of the air out of the room. Depending on how strong of a personality they have (and you have), this may be the last word on the matter.
This is one of the structural faults identified by Irving Janis in his work on groupthink. When you have an impartial leader, there is often little room for dissent or criticism and the deck gets stacked, often insurmountably.
The Abilene paradox comes from Jerry B. Harvey and is characterized by a group of people collectively agreeing to a course of action counter to the preferences of each individual.
The paradox starts with someone suggesting that a group drive to Abilene, which is 50 miles away, for a meal. The road is long and hot, and this was before cars had air conditioning. No one in the group wants to go, but each agrees, not wanting to dissent. So they all go, have a mediocre meal, and complain about it when they get back. Only then do they realize that none of them wanted to go, and even the person who suggested it only did so because he thought the others were bored.
How often do we see this on our teams? Not wanting to rock the boat, we self-censor or go along with the group, assuming that if everyone else is in agreement, then it can’t be that bad of an idea.
I’ve been guilty of this enough times to know that going along with the group, even when they are confident, isn’t enough to get my buy-in. Which is why I try to make a habit of questioning team decisions, especially early on.
When I came into a new team several years ago, I didn’t do this. We were well into the development of an additional feature for a product, and it seemed like everything was moving along. So I didn’t ask enough questions. I hopped into the car to Abilene and we kept driving. And it came back to bite me. Nothing about the feature turned out like we had hoped. And everyone knew it in hindsight. But none of us had stopped it. Don’t let that happen to you.
Design By Committee
Groups are meant to help us make better decisions, but often the opposite can happen. We’ve talked about this, and how groups can drive us to more polarized opinions. But the opposite is also true.
When we create a new product of feature, we often set out with a bold vision or strategy. But depending on your company or organization, that bold vision gets put through multiple cycles of de-boldifying. Everyone has to have their say, so what was once a focused idea becomes a mish-mash of everyone’s wishlist.
This happens with products, with features, with roadmaps, with strategies. And is often worse the bigger the group. Rather than a focused, bold direction, you end up with something designed by a committee. And it shows.
The Roadmap or Project Plan
Another cause of groupthink in our product teams is the roadmap or project plan. Which is why we love and hate roadmaps, as I’ve written about before.
The cause of this problem is the time pressure that a roadmap or plan puts onto a group. While a roadmap shouldn’t be a firm commitment to a date, that is often how it is viewed by leaders or other stakeholders. And they often hold teams to those commitments.
Once time pressures are introduced, many groups fall into the trap of groupthink. Rather than question assumptions or look for alternative paths, they will follow the plan. And everyone will go along with it. Because it is easier to go with the flow than rock the boat.
We’ve all been there before. I know I have. We’ve made a commitment. And while things may have changed, the easier path is simply to deliver the feature than to get everyone to understand why it would be better to pivot. Or (heaven-forbid) delay. I’m certainly no longer afraid of those conversations, and even relish them more than I should because they give me a chance to help others understand roadmaps and product thinking better, that’s not always an option for everyone. And it’s a pitfall for groupthink.
Lack of Methodology
When teams don’t have processes or methodologies to guide their decisions, it is far easier to fall into groupthink.
This was another cause identified by Janis in the 1970s. And it is just as relevant today.
Good product teams have a process for making good decisions. And for creating excellent products. That should involve research and discovery, time of iteration and learning, and repeating the process.
Unfortunately, many product teams don’t have some or all of these methodologies. Discovery may not be part of the process. They may be handed features to develop from an executive team who thinks they know best. Or they may not have time to learn and iterate, having to move from one thing to the next.
Good product management is about helping teams have good decision processes. Forcing us to think about what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. If we don’t do that, we often move too quickly, not questioning our assumptions, relying on the HiPPO or the project plan or the loudest voice in the group. None of which make for a good product experience.
New Coke wasn’t a massive aberration, it was just at a massive scale with a beloved product. Unfortunately, groupthink continues to be pervasive on our product teams at every level. Whether it is minor features or big launches.
Next week we’ll look at what we can do to avoid groupthink in our organizations and in our product teams.
Good Reads and Listens
Exploring Three Cognitive Biases on Product Teams (podcast) - In this episode we sat down with Adam Thomas, a product manager, leader and coach, to talk about 3 main cognitive biases in product teams and what we can do about them. We discussed how product managers are responsible for the decision fitness and process, and how to move from system one thinking to system two thinking. It was a delightful conversation and worth a listen.
Being Normal (article) - It takes a little weirdness to break out of groupthink, and often going against the grain. It can be uncomfortable. This was an interesting and relevant article along those lines.
Playing on Hard Mode (article) - AirBnB and DoorDash have been playing in hard mode, and have been having good success in different ways. This is an interesting dive into each and a comparison with other tech companies.