Monday, January 30, 2012

Groups, Thinking and Groupthinking

We Need Time Alone and Time Together to Be Effective
Several former students from my Strategic Communication class at NYU sent me an article from The New York Times recently. (I already read it but remain so appreciative that they thought of me.) “The Rise of the New Groupthink,” written by Susan Cain, caught their eyes because we had a deep discussion about the groupthink phenomenon. Unfortunately, the article didn’t capture the real essence of groupthink nor did it mention who coined the term.

Groupthink is not just thinking in groups. Dr. Irving L. Janis, as a research psychologist at Yale in 1971, said it’s “a mode of thinking that people engage in when they are deeply involved in a cohesive in-group, when the members’ striving for unanimity overrides their motivation to realistically appraise alternative courses of action.”

While it’s important for teams to feel and be cohesive, it’s our mutual responsibility to confront bad or negative behaviors. Too often, team members try to please one another; they don’t want to “rock the boat.” What’s most important to them is to be perceived as team players and to retain their membership or standing in the group. But groups that can’t challenge themselves can seriously threaten (and in some cases destroy) the groups’ very goals and principles. (The examples are too numerous to mention but one of the most extensively studied were the groupthink decisions that led to the loss of the space shuttle Challenger and her crew.)

Janus identified eight characteristics of groupthink:
  • Illusion of Invulnerability: A belief that any decision reached will be successful. (How can we lose? We’re too big, too important to fail.)
  • Belief in the Inherent Morality of the Group: A belief in the righteousness of the decision. (God is on our side!)
  • Rationalization: Objections are overshadowed by perceived negative reactions. (No one will notice or care. It’ll work because it’s always worked.)
  • Stereotypes of Out-Groups: Falsely characterizing another group. (It’s the media that’s giving us a bad name!)
  • Self-Censorship: What we commit upon ourselves in the guise of group loyalty, team spirit or adherence to company policy. (I should have said something, but…)
  •  Direct Pressure: Dissent is presumed to be disloyal or counter to the group’s interests. (If you’re not with us, you’re against us.)
  •  Mindguards: Data, facts, opinions kept deliberately away from the group. (Oh well, you already made up your mind anyway.)
  •  Illusion of Unanimity: As drawbacks are downplayed and the inevitability of the decision is reinforced, the group coalesces around the decision. (We have to make this happen, we have no choice – so we’re good to go, right?)
In her NYT article, Ms. Cain posits that we’re crushing creativity by teaching in classroom “pods” (where desks are arranged together) and working in open-plan offices. (Yes, it is nice to be able to close the door every now and then.) When referring to brainstorming new ideas she says, “People in groups tend to sit back and let others do the work; they instinctively mimic others’ opinions and lose sight of their own; and, often succumb to peer pressure.” And quoting Steve Wozniak of Apple fame: “Work alone... Not on a committee. Not on a team.”

Of course we need time and solitude to think. That's a "no brainer." (I couldn't resist.) I’m a big advocate of carving out some amount of time every day to ponder. More connections form in our brains when we think habitually. (More on this in the previous article, "A Creative New Year's Resolution.) So, generating ideas on your own is great. I’m all for it. But ideation, like just about everything else in life, requires balance. In this case, it's balancing time alone and time together. Refining and enhancing ideas through collaboration and gaining the buy-in of the group are essential elements in any organization and in any business. Indeed, the team concept isn’t at fault; it’s the team dynamic that can lead to trouble.

Janus offers us some help here, too, with some methods to avoid the effects of groupthink: 
  • Keep an Open Climate: Keep the discussion free of judgmental attitudes and accept divergent thinking.
  • Avoid the Isolation of the Group: Frame the issue/problem from different points of view; bring in outside opinion/experts.
  • Allow Critical Evaluation: Grant power to assail the “sacred cows” and challenge areas outside one’s expertise.
  • Avoid Being Too Directive: Allow the group it’s own space – leaders don’t need to be present for every meeting.
Ms. Cain concludes by acknowledging that collaboration is crucial, at least in some spheres. “The problems we face in science, economics and many other fields are more complex than ever before, and we’ll need to stand on one another’s shoulders if we can possibly hope to solve them.” My belief is that “many other fields” is more likely most, if not all of them.

Between blog posts, I invite you to follow me @pauloestreicher.

Friday, January 6, 2012

A Creative New Year's Resolution

This article first appeared in the MENG (Marketing Executives Networking Group) Blend.

How many times have you heard it? “Tell me something I don’t know.” “Give me your best creative ideas.” “I want a concept that people will be talking about.”

It doesn’t matter if you’re inside an organization or sitting in an agency – there is a never-ending desire and need for differentiation. Whether it’s a company, product or person, engaging and persuading stakeholders often involves thoughtful, clever marketing. The problem, though, is that creativity is both misunderstood and dropping in supply.

Although LinkedIn reported that “creative” was the most overused term in on-line profiles1, a survey released in 2010 by IBM of more than 1,500 CEOs from 60 countries and 33 industries emphasized that even “more than rigor, management discipline, integrity, or even vision—successfully navigating an increasing complex world will require creativity.” Creativity was cited by 60 percent of the CEOs as the most important attribute; integrity was next at 52 percent.2 With such a high premium placed on creativity, the CEOs in the survey signaled some concern because less than half of them “believe their enterprises are adequately prepared to handle a highly volatile, increasingly complex business environment.”

This may not be just a staffing problem. It may also mean that there are not enough creative thinkers to go around. Indeed, there is some evidence to suggest that we may be heading for a creativity crisis. A review of nearly 300,000 creativity tests, also called Torrance scores, of children and adults collected over several decades showed that American creativity has been declining since 1990.3 (These tests were based on the work of the late E. Paul Torrance, an educational psychologist best known for his research on creativity.)

Yet, creativity is in the eye of the beholder. There’s more than one definition and more than one way that creativity can lead to a successful outcome. Still, we must ensure that our educational system emphasizes idea generation and problem-solving techniques in addition to the more traditional memorization and drills.

Recognizing the importance of creativity, some advertising and public relations agencies have elevated people into positions such as chief creative officer. You may have also seen the titles creative guru, creative ninja, or even head of creation (which may get an argument from, shall we say, a higher authority). That’s all fine but I have known a few who took their titles to mean that creativity was their personal domain and theirs alone. These individuals would go into seclusion so they could develop “the big idea.” Then, they presented their concepts as a fait accompli, like Athena bursting out of Zeus’s head fully armored and ready for battle. We want and need exceptional thinkers on our team, but they sometimes rail against process and fail to realize that there is, or should be, a team. Without good leadership from the “creative types,” the other human resources in the organization will be wasted and demoralized.

While meeting the business objective is the ultimate measure of success, it’s been known that the quest to be creative sometimes becomes the objective in itself. In the drive to knock the socks off of the client, or win an industry award, the true customer – the end-user – is forgotten. We need to spend more time orienting on the audience, reminding ourselves of the real prize. As King Arthur said when he rose to power, “I don’t think things ought to be done because you are able to do them. I think they should be done because you ought to do them.”4

As a fan of the Arthurian legends, I was taken aback by a comment made about his style of thinking toward the end of his life: “The old man had always been a dutiful thinker, never an inspired one.”5 What was meant by this? Was it an insult? Was there an implication that dutiful thinking was inferior to creative thinking? The truth is we need both. A dutiful thinker is a habitual thinker, one who is always observing, searching for solutions, and attempting to anticipate the future. The creative spark is precious but dutiful thinking, steady and stepwise, is a virtue of its own. Sometimes we can get to the goal line in one play. More often, though, progress is made in important, incremental steps that ultimately add up to the win. As Merlin, Arthur’s mentor, told him: “…the only thing worth doing for the race is to increase its stock of ideas.”6

The creativity deficit could be reversed in short order if more people adopt the concept of marrying dutiful with inspired thinking. Getting ourselves and others to think a bit more and a bit more regularly is surely a lot easier than other New Year’s resolutions we’ve proclaimed and then later abandoned. It’s interesting to note, too, that habitual thinking is a form of mental exercise that, over a lifetime of consistent contemplation, changes our neurological patterns.7, 8 More time thinking helps to remodel our brains so that we get better at thinking. If only weight loss and getting in better shape were this painless!

1. Ceyhan, Simla, “Buzzwords 2011: Who’s been ‘creative’ and ‘effective’ this year?,” December 13, 2011,
2. 2010 IBM Global CEO Study,
3. Attributed to Kyung-Hee Kim in P. Bronson and A. Merryman, “The Creativity Crisis,” Newsweek, July 19, 2010.
4. White, T.H., The Once and Future King, p. 246.
5. White, T.H., The Once and Future King, p. 630.
6. White, T.H., The Book of Merlyn, p. 11.
7. R. E. Jung et al., “Biochemical Support for the ‘Threshold’ Theory of Creativity: A Magnetic Resonance Spectroscopy Study,” Journal of Neuroscience 29:16 (2009): 5319–5325.
8. R. E. Jung et al., “Neuroanatomy of Creativity, Human Brain Mapping,” Journal of Neuroscience 31:3 (2010): 398–409.

Between blog posts, you can follow me @pauloestreicher.