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Why Cognitive Diversity Solves Your Groupthink Problem

By Mark Fedeli

In federal IT, devastating errors can hide in plain sight. IT leaders, like all leaders, strive to make strategic decisions, but too often big decisions are compromised by groupthink.

Groupthink starts as a simple mistake – allowing group acceptance as a participant in a big decision to overtake critical analysis of the situation at hand. Irving Janis’s landmark 1972 study Victims of Groupthink showed how this bias in the most strategic of U.S. national security decisions shaped the post-World War II world. It led directly to loss of life and heightened Cold War tensions.

Responsible leaders avoid becoming too interested in being in the room where it happens. Instead, they discipline themselves to intently assess risks and anticipate adverse human and organizational impacts likely to follow each course of action under consideration.

Leaders can detect groupthink by looking for these indicators whenever decisions fail to:

  • Utilize all available information.
  • Consider the full spectrum of potential objectives and outcomes.
  • Weigh costs, benefits and risks of each course of action.
  • Dissect group biases and prior beliefs.
  • Develop detailed implementation plans and contingency plans.

For executives, groupthink narrows options, undermines imaginative solutions and assumes the future is more predictable and less complex than it is. For organizations, it cascades across business processes, data analytics and advisory teams to make them disruptable.

Disruptability is a real risk that professionals can analyze. I define it as the risk of strategic surprise by competitors or market forces that eclipse our influence with new ways of operating. This harms everyone, making mitigation of groupthink core to risk management.

Not All Biases Are Bad

Despite their reputation, biases aren’t all bad. In fact, in Thinking, Fast and Slow, Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman describes the normal state of our minds as full of intuitive feelings, opinions and dislikes – without knowing why. Given this wiring, how can IT leaders overcome the bias of groupthink?

First, they must make it a team sport. Getting teams together to solve hard problems takes discipline. It means exposing process gaps, identifying root causes, quantifying risks and creating a range of potential solutions using hard data and group insights. Federal IT leaders must build coalitions representative of all key stakeholders to overcome groupthink in big decisions, and they must do so early in the process.

Second, we can learn to wield good biases as weapons against bad ones, including groupthink. We should be biased enough to celebrate right over wrong, inclusion over exclusion and truth over lies.

Lastly, in an effort to overcome groupthink, leaders need to implement a replacement decision-making strategy, by bringing a full spectrum of perspectives together through cognitive diversity.

Applying Cognitive Diversity: The Anti-Groupthink

Overcoming groupthink takes courageous leadership. IT leaders can start with these steps:

1. Define the strategy behind the decision. A decision is an irrevocable commitment of resources (e.g., time, money and credibility). Frame the decision carefully.

2. Establish decision meetings and participant roles. Depending on your organization, several departments deserve a voice in IT decisions. Capitalize on this by engaging a wide array of stakeholders and asking them to commit to a disciplined decision process. Set up informational meetings to validate the decision to be made and what data and insights each group must contribute to join the decision process.

3. Forget about coming up with “the right answer.” Once you have your participants, establish a small group of trusted process facilitators and empower them to lead stakeholders and their contributions toward consensus. Here, cognitive diversity will counter groupthink as diverse interests and styles of thinking interact – and often compete – to unearth hidden paths forward and uncover barriers to progress.

4. Take your time. This is two-fold. First, dedicate some time with a focused but flexible agenda to work through thorny topics. As the “aha moments” surface, consensus should form if everyone is committed to the same values and strategic goals. Second, expect it to take a couple of disciplined decisions before everyone gets used to the pace, level of detail and degree of constructive friction.

This can be an arduous and at-times, lengthy process, but the discipline is worth the effort. Doing this will allow cognitive diversity to generate decisive insights much more often than not.

Interested in becoming a Featured Contributor? Email topics you’re interested in covering for GovLoop to [email protected]. And to read more from our summer/fall 2021 Cohort, here is a full list of every Featured Contributor during this cohort and a link to their stories.

Mark Fedeli is a serial innovator and native of the Washington area with two decades of experience in software, national security and digital modernization. Currently, Mark serves as Federal Alliance Director for Qlik. He leads partner efforts to support Qlik’s 90+ federal customers. Mark is also completing a book about digital, generational and cognitive change called Horizon Zero, published by Blooming Twig Books. You can connect with him on Twitter.

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