Saturday, June 6, 2009

Groupthink – Please agree!

The Meeting or a brainstorming session is a well accepted technique to come together in a room for idea generation. I have participated in these sessions many times and have come out of it feeling ‘time well spent’, I am sure you too have.

Of many observations, I want to talk about the small problem of ‘herd mentality’, and how it might affect the outcome in a big way.

a) An idea put on the board blocks others to think in different direction.
b) Pressure to generate idea might make one agree of someone else’s idea.
c) A wrong belief might set in - if most of us are thinking in one direction then that must be the correct direction.

“Iraq has weapons of mass destruction” – Half the world believed so at one point of time.

“Kashmir is root for the India Pakistan problem” – All the Pakistan rulers say this as part of their swearing in.

“The foam rupture is too small to create any problem for NASA’s Challenger” – The statement issued by the top management, engineers on the ground kept mum.

Back to our professional world, many of you must have overcome challenges in groupthinking.

What if everybody can contribute their ideas privately, then everybody gets a peak into everybody else’s ideas privately; say everybody has to support two ideas, one of that could be their own. Brainstorming happens for the top supported ideas, for additional ideas, to take the top ideas to the next level of details, and on how it needs to be executed. Doing this might eliminate the issues of herd mentality mentioned above.

“Individuality into the group thinking” is better than plain “individual thinking” or plain “group thinking”.

Check it out; your group may not think that groupthink is a problem!


  1. Correct! For me, best strategy is usually generated by individual because group thinking usually generate a normal idea that will be agreed by public instead of an idea that is unique.

  2. Complicated process - to be individual and yet be part of a group !

  3. This is an interesting blog. We are attempting to create an inventor's club and the challenge of capturing the synergy of a group's intelligence while maintaining the individual's intellectual property (his idea) is really a conunundrum. So far, it is like herding cats.

  4. The Delphi technique, as you probably know, allows you to collect ideas and views in a kind of virtual of brainstorming which does not allow one person or idea to suppress others.
    I also think that following up a simple brainstorm of ideas with an FMEA can be very powerful.

  5. In most of the meeting in any form the flow of the meeting is influenced by the formal/informal leader and mostly influenced by strong communiators. As a result the efficient person with lessor confidence/communication abilty can develop this viewpoint. In nut-shell is it possible to give due waitage to all view-points and still reach o a concensis.

    Amrit Nath Thulal

  6. Interesting post.

    Firstly, I recommend you read Keith Sawyer's book Group Genius. It is a well researched volume on Groups and creative thinking.

    Secondly, you've pointed out two of the reasons why traditional brainstorming (as developed and popularised by Alex Osburn in the late 50s) does not actually work very well. Ideas tend to cluster around the first interesting idea to come up and dominant people tend to dominate idea trends in a brainstorming event.

    To overcome this, I have used the approach of starting brainstorming by having people write ideas on a sheet of paper first. Then I put them in pairs and they combine, discuss and add new ideas. I continue combining groups until the entire brainstorming team is working as a group. This allows individuals to put interesting new ideas into the brainstorming pot; ideas that probably would not have been suggested otherwise.

    Thirdly, and most importantly, while diverse groups are potentially FANTASTIC for generating and developing ideas, they are dismal at selecting the best idea(s). And you should NEVER base decision making on a group popularity vote! For the reasons you gave as well as the inherent conservativism of most corporate thinkers and the fact that highly innovative ideas often seem crazy at first, groups tend to vote for incremental innovations rather than radical or breakthrough innovations.

    By all means, let diverse groups generate, build upon and develop ideas, but use tight, disciplined teams and structured criteria for evaluating ideas and determining which have the greatest value potential (which, please note, is very different from being the "best idea").

    On another note, research has shown that the problem you've mentioned, of individuals dominating brainstorming, as well as other problems of traditional brainstorming largely disappear when using on-line tools to brainstorm. Note, however, that this is the case with focused brainstorming or innovation process management which involves people collaboratively generating ideas to solve a problem or achieve a goal and not an open suggestion box where people are invited to submit any idea they have.

    I've only touched on your terrific blog post, Jayesh, but there's lots more information on all of this freely available in our Creativity and Innovation library at

    Jeffrey Baumgartner

  7. Groupthink can be a problem, but so too can failure to draw out the ideas of "passengers" - those that follow the crowd or sit shly keeping their views to themselves.

    In my workshops, I break the group into much smaller teams (3 or 4) who brainstorm, then pass their a small number of their best ideas onto a different team for development, who then pass an even smaller number of the developed ideas to another team who select one or two for evaluation. This tends to reduce groupthink substantially and has proven very effective.

    Hope that helps

  8. Group think issues are impacted by the ownership mindset. Often in an engineering environment the mindset is to contribute without putting yourself in the position to take the blame. You've pointed out the results of that type of environment.

    On the hand in the environment where someone takes the ownership collaboration is still vital. The owners should surround themselves with expert advise. Allow others to collaborate to lend their expertise for as long as appropriate. The creative owner can then pick and choose what works and it will greatly accelerate the creative process.