Creativity is Key: Tips on Avoiding Groupthink

It’s awesome when everyone agrees, isn’t it? Yes—and no. Most of us have, at some point, fallen into the trap of groupthink to avoid conflict and promote harmony in a group, whether at school, work, or on a committee. Groupthink has its perks: everyone feels comfortable, and there’s no risk of tension among members. It’s safe. Easy. Unfortunately, it can also kills creativity and innovation.

Creativity is a key component of business growth, no matter what industry you’re part of. Nobody likes conflict—but nobody likes a stale, stagnating business, either. So how can you prevent groupthink, and make your office a safe environment for innovation and creative thought? Here are 9 tips to get you started.

1. Make diversity a priority

You can’t have creative, innovative thought with an office full of people who have the same perspectives. Many offices struggle with diversity, but it’s actually one of the best decisions a company can make to help avoid groupthink and promote innovation. Diversity in ethnicity, age, gender, and disability helps everyone work more constructively, and promotes creative ideas.

2. Provide structure

You can’t have creative, innovative thought with an office full of people who have the same perspectives.

Having a formal plan in place for preventing groupthink and evaluating ideas might seem like overkill, but it’s actually very helpful in promoting innovation. You’ll have a structure to the meetings that will help keep them on track, but you’ll have enough safeguards built in to prevent everyone from agreeing constantly. Having a structure for feedback, monitoring signs of groupthink, and breaking out of any ruts will be key to keeping the creativity flowing.

3. Don’t discourage debate

You can’t make changes without debate, and innovative thinking will inevitable cause some discomfort that turns into debate. That’s good! Groupthink thrives when there’s no conflict, and shaking things up with new ideas is sure to turn into a debate sooner or later. Moderate these debates so they don’t get out of hand—but don’t shut them down unless it’s necessary. Encouraging dissent is one of the key principles of avoiding groupthink.

4. Collect—and use—anonymous suggestions

Got a suggestion box? If it’s sitting in the corner, gathering dust, bring it back to life! Review the suggestions on a regular basis, and go over them in meetings. If your team sees that the suggestions are actually being considered, they’ll feel better about submitting feedback. Anonymous feedback often provides some of the most honest and innovative ideas, so don’t rule out polls and other methods for collecting suggestions!

5. Have everyone give feedback (positive and critical)

If you allow the meeting to take a normal (groupthink) course of action, it’s easy for your team to just agree with any idea put forth by their colleagues. Instead, try having everyone write down at least one piece of positive feedback, and one piece of critical feedback to contribute to each idea. That way, your team will have to think critically about the problem, instead of just going along with what everyone else has to say. You can have team members submit their thoughts anonymously, or have everyone contribute to the discussion, then and there.

6. Bring in an “outsider”

Having different personalities on the team is important for avoiding groupthink, but over time, we all tend to fall into the same patterns. Consider bringing in an “outsider” to help evaluate team ideas. This outsider could be a member of another team, or an outside consultant, but the key is to bring in someone who has a fresh perspective and isn’t worried about disagreeing with the normal group.

7. Step back

As a leader, your voice is heard in nearly every workplace scenario. During the brainstorming phase, it may be better for you to step back and allow your team to contribute. Some people will become intimidated, preferring to agree with authority, rather than pitch their own ideas. Cede the floor, and wait for creative ideas to emerge.

8. Choose a devil’s advocate

Nobody wants to be the bad guy—but what if there was always a bad guy in your meetings—randomly chosen? Consider having your team draw straws to see who the random “devil’s advocate” of the meeting will be. This person’s responsibility is to look at each idea from a critical perspective. What questions do the ideas bring up? Your devil’s advocate is free to bring them up, with no fear of hurting any feelings.

9. Don’t let anything fester

It’s important to keep dissent healthy, and avoid stirring up any major conflict. Before you dismiss the meeting, work through anything that might have gotten too heated. As a leader, heading off true conflict in the workplace should be one of your major priorities. Creativity can stir up emotions like jealousy, discomfort, and rivalries, so keep an eye on any discussion that gets out of hand—and work on it after the meeting.

By Ryan Ayers

About the author

Ryan Ayers has consulted a number of companies within multiple industries including information technology and big data. After earning his MBA in 2010, Ayers also began working with start-up companies and aspiring entrepreneurs, with a keen focus on data collection and analysis.

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