June 20 – Avoiding group-think

“It is better to be divided by truth than to be united by error.” (Adrian Rogers)

In the days when I did a lot of volunteer work at the Church, I worked with a woman who used to say that it was amazing what a group of like-minded people could accomplish. When a small group of people are united by a single idea, they can accomplish a great deal, even making major changes to the organization that they are in. But, there is an important distinction that must be made between being like-minded, and being of only one mind. Group-think is a dangerous thing. When a group of people become so aligned to one another that they do not challenge each others’ thoughts, it can lead to very negative results.

I used to work in an organization that had the assignment for setting standards for Project Management at my company. At the time our group was formed, there were many Project Managers, and each did things their way. There wasn’t consistency in how schedules were created and maintained, how issues or risks were tracked, how financial records were kept, and so on. Our job was to create, document and publish standards for each of these disciplines. Then, once a discipline was published, we would have a “road show” where we would go around to various groups convincing them that they needed to move to the standard.

The change effort was quite difficult. Getting a group of successful, motivated professionals to change how they do their work was quite a daunting task. We didn’t always have the hammer of telling them that they had to do it by the standard, which meant we had to convince them that doing it our way would be better. In some cases, what we’d published as the standard wasn’t necessarily better than what a particular individual was doing, but the standard way would serve the greater good.

We were a small group of people, only about 8 of us started the group. We would work sometimes for months away from daily interaction with other project managers as we developed the standards. We all had a vision of what we wanted to overall standards to look like, and we worked hard to make what we were doing fit into that framework. Group-think was our enemy because it would cause us to miss important, diverse thoughts on how to approach a particular standard.

I recall once sitting in a conference room with about 10 – 15 project managers and delivery managers. I was promoting a standard scorecard for measuring progress on a project, and whether it was on track for success. I had taken over the scorecard project from another person, and with the rest of the team we created what we thought was a strong product. We had even done a pilot and it looked quite promising. One of the things we measured was financial performance. If the project didn’t meet certain standards for financial management, then it would show up as red.

This particular group challenged that concept. They said that their projects didn’t have budgets in the way that others did, and that the measurement was invalid. I couldn’t imagine how that could be, and I dug in my heels with the presentation and my group’s stand. The meeting ended in an impasse, and we got no traction in that organization for adopting the standard.

When I went back to my team we discussed the results. We were all aligned in our belief about how things should be measured, and we all agreed that the other group was wrong. We failed to take into account a different model for managing a project. We lacked that diverse set of thoughts that would have shown us that, in fact, there were other models for how a project could be run. In short, we’d succumbed to group-think.

It took some time for us to realize our mistake, and then to correct the tool and re-publish. Eventually we decided to add a team member from that organization to help us understand their model for project management. We even spent time looking for other groups that also had a different approach from ours and added another member or two.

It was hard for us to break that group-think approach to our work, but adding the other team members helped greatly. We made changes to some of our standards and tools, and in the long run we had much better adoption. Our expanded team were still like-minded in our desire to have standards, but we’d broken out of the group-thinking that had sent us down the rat hole.

In this quote, Rogers reminds us that disagreeing, when there are facts on the table, is far better than agreeing when the facts are missing. In our case we had some, but not all of the facts. We became quickly aligned to an ideal that wasn’t sustainable for other groups.

When forming a team it is important to have a diverse set of viewpoints. It will be more difficult at the start to find the common ground and get aligned on an approach, but it is in that diversity of thought that truly great results are possible.

This entry was posted in Personal Reflections, Reflection 365 and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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