Get Groups to Think


—Bite-sized advice for better business writing—

Get Groups to Think

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

— Margaret Mead

In 1961, the Kennedy administration launched the disastrous Bay of Pigs Invasion—a decision made by the president, his top advisors, and the CIA. A year later, those same leaders successfully resolved the Cuban Missile Crisis, averting global thermonuclear war.

What was the difference?

In the first instance, a desire for conformity of opinion and a righteous certainty of cause created groupthink. Dissension and diversity were quashed, and the group acted more stupidly than any of its brilliant members.

In the second instance, those very same group members invited a diversity of opinions and truly worked together to achieve collective intelligence. By harnessing the diverse perspectives of its members and thinking together, the group was smarter than any of the brilliant people in it.

How can we avoid groupthink?

Provide an environment conducive to creating collective intelligence. When setting up group work, follow these tips:

  • Be purposeful. Groups should not just meet when and where but why. The purpose should always require the group—discussion, collaboration, decision making. In other words, don’t schedule a meeting that should have been an email.
  • Set common goals. State the why up front, whether in a simple goal statement—“We need to evaluate the spring catalog”—or in a formal agenda.
  • Silence leaders and unsilence group members. Once the group knows what to do, let the group do it. If the leader states an opinion up front, group members who agree will pipe up, and those who disagree will clam up. Instead, the leader should say, “What does everyone think?” The leader should allow others to talk and interact and should prompt silent members to engage.
  • Publicly document group work. As group members exchange ideas, track them. Start with traditional minutes in a shareable folder, but also use a whiteboard or flipchart. It lets you create persistent, public, editable artifacts of group thought. It also allows group members to contribute collaboratively in real time and return later to revisit the group’s interaction. Post these artifacts around a workspace to facilitate ongoing collective thinking.
  • Tap varied expertise. Group members bring different specialization and experience to the team, so use these differences. Have IT and marketing and HR each offer their own contributions. Get group members to rely on each others’ expertise—making the whole smarter than any of its parts.
  • Invite differences of opinion. A rush to consensus creates groupthink, with yes-people shoring up bad ideas and discouraging good ones. Instead, when someone presents an idea, other group members should paraphrase it, elaborate on it, and initiate discussion. Then the group should entertain other ideas.
  • Allow for productive conflict. Reasonable differences of opinion are actually productive to group work, helping everyone reach the best decision. Of course, if conflict escalates to shouting matches, feuds, or verbal or physical abuse, the group work must stop and HR (and possibly law enforcement) should get involved.

How do we resolve productive conflicts?

For productive conflict, group members have multiple options:

  • Cooperate with the other person, working for the common good.
  • Compromise with the other, each giving up something to meet in the middle.
  • Assert a position if the idea is right or if alternatives are unacceptable.
  • Defer to the other if one’s own position is ill-considered or not worth fighting over.
  • Compete with the other, each trying a different approach to see which works.

Make sure that the conflict-resolution strategy works toward achieving the group goal. For example, Kennedy’s advisors who were dubious about the Bay of Pigs Invasion chose to defer to others to maintain conformity (not the group’s stated goal) rather than assert their opinions to ensure the best military decision (the group’s actual goal).

How should groups make decisions?

Match the decision-making strategy to the type of group:

Method of Deciding
Authority Rule: The group discusses issues and may make recommendations. However, one authority figure—a leader or an invited expert—makes the decision.
This method is efficient.
Members may feel they don’t get a say.
Minority Rule: A vocal or powerful minority makes the decision. (Sometimes the minority is a subcommittee delegated to take on the issue.)
Even minority interests can be heard and have power.
This method may leave the majority feeling left out.
Majority Rule: The group votes, and whatever option crosses a threshold of votes wins.
This approach is fair but still efficient.
Those in the minority may feel reluctant to cooperate.
Consensus Rule: All group members agree to support a solution even though some may have reservations.
Group members feel included and valued.
This method may take time and discussion.

How should the group delegate tasks?

Most people want to contribute, to be needed. On the other hand, no one wants to do everything while others do nothing. When groups delegate, they should remember two factors:

  • Ability: Assign group members tasks that suit their talents, experience, and authority. Don’t ask a new hire to rate the job performance of managers. Don’t ask sales staff to restock pallets in the warehouse.
  • Equity: Balance the workload. Don’t assign one person a three-day task and another a three-minute task. If some group members can’t assist with a specific task, have them work concurrently on another goal of the group. No one should be idle, and no one should be overwhelmed.

Get More Support

Refer to the Write for Business Guide, Courses, and eTips for more help with working in teams.