Meetings 411: 10 Tips for Getting Beyond Groupthink

Reflection TimeGroupthink. It's one of those concepts that many executives and managers perceive as outdated. This isn't surprising as it has been around since 1952 when William H. Whyte, Jr. first described this pressure to conform that often leads to less than optimal group decisions. Yet is it outdated?

I have had the opportunity to facilitate team building retreats all over the world and to serve on a number of association boards. Based on what I have observed, while groupthink has been shoved aside as much too basic to be worth the bother, it is still rampant and silently stifling creativity in business meetings and executive suites around the globe.

Here is an example. During my company's desert survival and arctic survival team building sessions, we give the teams a simple scenario. There has been a plane crash. Your team is stranded in the desert (or the arctic). What is the best strategy to survive. Teams rarely get it right. What is interesting is that even if  a team member has done the exercise before, his or her input is quickly shot down and the team still arrives at the wrong solution. 

How does this play out when planning events? Sometimes it's in the details and logistics. Often it's when working out timing for speakers or activities. Real concerns are glossed over and this leads to a hectic schedule, pressured participants and mistakes on event day. It doesn't have to be that way. To avoid derailing your meetings due to groupthink:

  1. Identify members of the group who have the most experience and expertise with respect to specific topics or agenda items.
  2. Give those individuals more air time and really take the time to hear their concerns.
  3. If a point of view is expressed that is different from the one held by the majority of meeting participants, really take them time to explore it.
  4. Move beyond talking and use objective tools for brainstorming, analysis and decision-making.
  5. A simple "what could go wrong" mind map or idea chain can help the group pinpoint the majority of logistical pitfalls and generate solutions.
  6. Build some thinking and reflection time into meetings and give attendees the option of working in pairs, trios or individually. (Perhaps play quiet music in the background.)

    In her book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, Susan Cain reported on new research by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Gregory Feist. It revealed that creative types can be introverts who make creative breakthroughs during periods of quiet and solitude.

  1. Appoint or engage a facilitator to ensure that there is balanced participation during meetings from introverts and extroverts. At times, key input and information is missed when some attendees dominate the meeting and others can't get a word in edgewise.
  2. The majority is not always right so don't be afraid to table some agenda items and postpone decision-making to allow more time for fact-finding, research and reflection.
  3. In open concept offices, consider creating a quiet room to provide space for such reflection.
  4. During event post-mortems, do a "what went wrong" analysis to identify areas where the planning team missed the mark. In this way, you can fine-tune decision-making for future events.

Photo Credits: Meeting Facilitation, Executive Oasis International

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