How the Individual’s Groupthink Tendencies can Affect Innovation
Imagine this. You are about to experience something for the very first time. You have no idea of what is going to happen and what to expect. In your mind you create images based on previous experiences to help you anticipate what is likely to happen and prepare yourself mentally. As you approach the place where that something is happening you take a deep breath to collect your thoughts, straighten your back and enter the premise.
When was the last time this happened to you? I have to admit, being in a mid-career mid-life stage, what I described above is quite a rare occasion. Until last week when it happened to me, not once but twice. I participated in a lunch hosted by a business network which I had never heard of before. And I went to a Catholic Mass (I was born and raised protestant).
These occasions triggered me to gain two insights. First, I do not like to mingle because I find it unorganized, untargeted (typically invitations say “we will offer your great opportunities to meet with other like-minded” which means a large open arena with people wandering around trying to figure out how to get in touch with others who wander around and are just as unfocused) and I do not like to force myself into conversations that are already on-going.
In contrast, this business network lunch was very organized and the structure provided 11/2 hr really efficient networking. Despite having no previous knowledge apart from knowing who invited me, I felt no discomfort, no sense of having wasted my time and left with five great new contacts. Hence adding the structure helped me relax and allowed me to focus on the purpose rather than worrying about the set-up.
Second, despite not being very active in practicing my Protestant faith I realized while attending the Catholic Mass and going through the rituals that I am not a Catholic and that I can stick to being a protestant.
Sometimes you need other perspectives to find answers to what you are looking for. Take the business lunch for example; I have always found it a bit odd that I do not like to mingle despite being a social person by nature. On the other hand, I want the things that I invest time and energy in to have a purpose and a goal. Experiencing a mingle opportunity that was done differently from what I am used to helped me realize why I usually feel discontent at other similar occasions and what I need to change.
The primary consequence of groupthink is the loss of individual creativity, uniqueness, and independent thinking. Devastating from an innovation perspective.
Groupthink is one of the main inhibitors of innovation occurring in groups of people. This psychological phenomena happens when the desire for harmony in a decision-making group overrides a more healthy discussion of alternatives. Group members try to minimize conflict and reach a consensus decision without critical evaluation of alternative ideas or viewpoints. Factors such as group member background, lack of an impartial leader and extreme external threats play into the likelihood of whether or not groupthink will impact the decision-making process. The primary consequence of groupthink is the loss of individual creativity, uniqueness, and independent thinking. Devastating from an innovation perspective. Especially if you want more than incremental improvements on existing offerings.
What does groupthink have to do with me going to lunch or attending a Catholic Mass? What made me gain the insights was exposure to something new outside my regular context or regular perception of how an activity is carried out. It helped me view my own perspectives in new ways and guided me to insights that I was unable to gain without such exposure. When group members have too much in common exposure to new perspectives or occasions like my lunch simply do not happen inside the group as part of the internal activities.
Discussions may run smoothly and consensus comes fast, but if the key to solving the problem at hand is in fact taking on a different view, a group in which the members are too alike have a very hard time. The only solution is exposure to something that triggers something new: a new member (provided that there is the mental space of new thinking), new leadership, or external triggers that invite group members to explore and enhance their differences rather than diminish them.
I believe that just as groupthink exists in groups of people, we as individuals create groupthink inside ourselves. Inviting a new group member to one’s self may not be a very viable solution. Exposing oneself to external triggers is. By continuously doing so and actively exercising the muscle of reflection, we minimize the risk of bringing groupthink to the table when going into group work.
By Susanna Bill
About the author
Susanna is the former Head of Innovation at Sony Ericsson Mobile Communications. In 2009 she founded Sustenance AB and since then shares her time between advising corporate leaders in how to make innovation happen by strengthening the innovation capabilities of their organizations, and pursuing a PhD at the department of Design Sciences at Lund University, focusing on the social processes that are beneficial for the innovation capabilities of self organizing teams. Susanna is a sought after speaker and panelist and the moderator of Innovation in Mind conference.