Eight to Late

Sensemaking and Analytics for Organizations

Groupthink in project environments

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Introduction

Groupthink refers to the tendency of members of a group to think alike because of peer pressure and insulation from external opinions. The term was coined by the psychologist Irving Janis in 1972. In a recent paper entitled, Groupthink in Temporary Organizations, Markus Hallgren looks at how groupthink manifests itself in temporary organisations and what can be done to minimize it. This post, which is based on  Hallgren’s paper and some of the references therein, discusses the following aspects of groupthink:

  1. Characteristics of groups prone to groupthink.
  2. Symptoms of groupthink.
  3. Ways to address it.

As we’ll see, Hallgren’s discussion of groupthink is particularly relevant for those who work in project environments.

Background

Hallgren uses a fascinating case study to illustrate how groupthink contributes to poor decision-making in temporary organisations: he analyses events that occurred in the ill-fated 1996 Everest Expedition. The expedition has been extensively analysed by a number of authors and, as Hallgren puts it:

Together, the survivors’ descriptions and the academic analysis have provided a unique setting for studying a temporary organization. Examining expeditions is useful to our understanding of temporary organizations because it represents the outer boundary of what is possible. Among the features claimed to be a part of the 1996 tragedy’s explanation are the group dynamics and organizational structure of the expeditions. These have been examined across various parameters including leadership, goal setting, and learning. They all seem to point back to the group processes and the fact that no one interfered with the soon-to-be fatal process which can result from groupthink.

Mountaineering expeditions are temporary organisations: they are time-bound activities which are directed towards achieving a well-defined objective using pre-specified resources. As such, they are planned as projects are, and although the tools used in “executing” the work of climbing are different from those used in most projects, essential similarities remain. For example, both require effective teamwork and communication for successful execution.  One aspect of this is the need for team members to be able to speak up about potential problems or take unpopular positions without fear of being ostracized by the group.

Some characteristics of groups that are prone to groupthink are:

  1. A tightly knit group.
  2. Insulation from external input.
  3. Leaders who promote their own preferred solutions (what’s sometimes called promotional leadership)
  4. Lack of clear decision-making process
  5. Homogenous composition of group.

Additional, external factors that can contribute to groupthink are:

  1. Presence of an external threat.
  2. Members (and particularly, influential members) have low self-esteem because of previous failures in similar situations.

Next we’ll take a brief look at how groups involved in the expedition displayed the above characteristics and how these are also relevant to project teams.

Groupthink in the 1996 Everest Expedition and its relevance to project teams

Much has been written about the ill-fated expedition, the most well-known account  being Jon Krakauer’s best-selling book, Into Thin Air.  As Hallgren points out, the downside of having a popular exposition is that analyses tend to focus on the account presented in it, to the exclusion of others. Most of these accounts, however, focus on the events themselves rather than the context and organizational structure in which they occur.  In contrast, Hallgren’s interest is in the latter – the context, hierarchy and the role played by these in supporting groupthink. Below I outline the connections he makes between organizational features and groupthink characteristics as they manifested themselves on the expedition. Following Hallgren, I also point out how these are relevant to project environments.

Highly cohesive group

The members of the expedition were keen on getting to the summit because of the time and money they had individually invested in it. This shared goal lead to a fair degree of cohesion within the group, and possibly caused warnings signs to be ignored and assumptions rationalized. Similarly, project team members have a fair degree of cohesion because of their shared (project) goals.

Insulation from external input

The climbing teams were isolated from each other. As a result there was little communication between them. This was exacerbated by the fact that only team leaders were equipped with communication devices. A similar situation occurs on projects where there is little input from people external to the project,  other teams working on similar projects or even “lessons learned” documents from prior projects. Often the project manager takes on the responsibility for communication, further insulating team members from external input.

Promotional leadership

Group leaders on the expedition had a commercial interest in getting as many clients as possible to the summit. This may have caused them to downplay risks and push clients harder than they should have. This is similar to situations in projects which are seen as the “making of project managers.”  The pressure to succeed can cause project managers to display promotional leadership.

Lack of clear decision making process

All decisions on the expedition were made by group leaders. Although this may have been necessary because group members lacked mountaineering expertise, decisions were not communicated in a timely manner (this is related to the point about insulation of groups) and there was no clear advice to groups about when they should turn back. This situation is similar to projects in which decisions are made on an ad-hoc basis, without adequate consultation or discussion with those who have the relevant expertise. Ideally, decision-making should be a collaborative process, involving all those who have a stake in its outcome.

Homogeneous composition of group

Expedition members came from similar backgrounds – folks who had the wherewithal to pay for an opportunity to get to the summit. Consequently, they were all highly motivated to succeed (related to the point about cohesion). Similarly, project teams are often composed of highly motivated individuals (albeit, drawn from different disciplines). The  shared motivation to succeed can lead to  difficulties being glossed over and risks ignored.

External threat

The expedition was one of many commercial expeditions on the mountain at that time. This caused an “us versus them” mentality, which lead to risky decisions being made. In much the similar way, pressure from competitors (or even project sponsors)  can cloud a project manager’s judgement,  leading to poor  decisions  regarding project scope and timing.

Low self esteem

Expedition leaders were keen to prove themselves because of previous failures in getting clients to the summit. This may have lead to a single-minded pursuit of succeeding this time. A similar situation can occur in projects where managers use the project as a means to build their credibility and self-esteem.

Symptoms and solutions

The above illustrates how project teams can exhibit characteristics of groups prone to groupthink. Hallgren’s case study highlights that temporary organisations – be they mountaineering expeditions or projects – can unwittingly encourage groupthink because of their time-bound, goal-focused nature.

Given this, it is useful for those involved in projects to be aware of some of the warning signs to watch for.  Janis identified the following symptoms of groupthink:

  1. Group members feel that they are invulnerable
  2. Warnings that challenge the groups assumptions are rationalized or ignored.
  3. Unquestioned belief in the group’s mission..
  4. Negative stereotyping of those outside the group.
  5. Pressure on group members to conform.
  6. Group members self-censor thoughts that contradict the group’s core beliefs.
  7. There is an illusion of unanimity because no dissenting opinions are articulated.
  8. Group leaders take on the role of “mind-guards” – i.e. they “shield” the group from dissenting ideas and opinions.

Regardless of the different contexts in which groupthink can occur, there are some stock-standard ways of avoiding it. These are:

  1. Brainstorm all alternatives.
  2. Play the devil’s advocate – consider scenarios contrary to those popular within the group.
  3. Avoid prejudicing team members’ opinions. For example, do not let managers express their opinions first.
  4. Bring in external experts.
  5. Discuss ideas independently with people outside the group.

Though this advice (also due to Janis) has been around for a while, and is well-known, groupthink remains alive and well in project environments;  see my post on the role of cognitive biases in project failure for examples of high-profile projects that fell victim to it.

Conclusion

Hallgren’s case study is an excellent account of the genesis and consequences of groupthink in a temporary organisation. Although his example is extreme, the generalizations he makes from it hold lessons for all project managers and leaders. Like the Everest expedition, projects are invariably run under tight time and budgetary constraints. This can give rise to conditions that breed groupthink. The best way to avoid groupthink is to keep an open mind and encourage dissenting opinions –  easier said than done, but the consequences of not doing so can be extreme.

Written by K

September 14, 2010 at 5:27 am

9 Responses

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  1. One effective way to avoid the pitfalls of ‘groupthink’ is through a structured process designed for just that purpose. For exampe, refer to the NSW Govt. Value Management Guidelines.
    http://www.treasury.nsw.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0009/5112/value_management.pdf

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    David Green

    September 20, 2010 at 10:07 am

  2. David,

    Thanks for the link. The process described in the guideline is a good example of a rational “front-end” decision-making process for projects: gather information (define problem to be solved)—> analyse proposed functions (define what a solution looks like) —> generate ideas / options (generate options for creating the solution) —> evaluation (choose the best option) —-> Action plan (develop a plan to create the solution). The problem of groupthink is addressed in the generate ideas/options phase – quoting from page 15 of the document:

    “One outcome of a value study is a “shopping list” of alternative ideas to achieve value improvement. Lateral thinking is encouraged during this phase to produce as many ideas as possible, even those ideas that may seem unworkable or unreasonable…”

    One point though: processes such as those described in the document can be subverted by organisational politics and/or fear of the consequences of speaking up. The efficacy of these methods depends very much on the culture of the organisation.

    Regards,

    Kailash.

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    K

    September 20, 2010 at 9:46 pm

  3. Kailash,
    You’re certainly right about the process being vulnerable to organisational sabotage. However, I’ve experienced value management workshops that do work effectively. Given that it is govt. policy, an agency that seeks funds must convince NSW Treasury that it has executed a proper process to prove their project. Coupled with the NSW “Gateway Review” system, it tends to prevent poorly structured projects proceeding. It is essential to have both an experienced facilitator, truly independent experts in the workshop, and endorsement from the project sponsor that they want the project improved, not rubber stamped.

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    David Green

    September 21, 2010 at 7:55 am

  4. David,

    Absolutely – sponsor buy-in, independent opinions and good facilitation are essential for such processes to work. As far as the latter is concerned, you may find a facilitation technique called dialogue mapping of interest. I’ve written a few pieces about the technique: see this post for a quick introduction and an example of dialogue mapping in action.

    Regards,

    Kailash.

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    K

    September 21, 2010 at 9:33 pm

  5. It’s kinda tricky when you look at it since the term seems to denote a positive insight but then again it doesn’t. It’s just the offspring of a hasty decision by forced up members.

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  6. […] Project groups are prone to falling into this trap, particularly when they are under pressure. See this post for more on groupthink in project environments and ways to address […]

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  7. […] Moreover, strategic behaviour may influence estimates in a myriad other ways. Then there is the groupthink factor  as […]

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  8. helpful explanation.

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    Wilberforce Kurevakwesu

    October 1, 2012 at 11:36 pm

  9. […] to say that most organisational pseudo-communication is generally are aimed at encouraging groupthink at the level of the entire […]

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