Using Structured Debate to Beat Groupthink


Editor’s note: One of the biggest reasons boards and other decision-making teams fail to properly recognize obvious risks is the Groupthink phenomenon that occurs when group members share perspectives that are too similar: a tendency to form consensus without properly recognizing dissent or innovation. Groupthink discourages individual input and enforces conformity in a way that is extremely hazardous to an organization’s health, making it more likely to get trampled by an obvious but neglected gray rhino threat. In this guest post, organizational psychologist and consultant Ben Dattner offers practical suggestions for structured debate that can help combat Groupthink and thus head off gray rhinos.

How Structured Debate Helps Your Team Grow

Many of us are familiar with the hazards of Groupthink – when teams or organizations operate on autopilot and feel a general false sense of invulnerability. They wind up maintaining course without appropriately considering emerging risks, debating alternative scenarios, or exploring new courses of action.

Groupthink happens because of basic social and interpersonal dynamics that include a wish for group harmony, pressures for conformity, increased commitment to ill-advised or outdated strategies, and punishment of dissenters. Once a team has reached, or appears to have reached, a consensus, it can be very hard for any individual to challenge the group’s interpretation of reality or predictions about the future — or to push back on what the group plans to do (or not do) — without running the risk of being perceived as a heretic or becoming a scapegoat. These dynamics make it hard for teams to recognize or to be fully cognizant of new disruptive challenges, while also stifling the creative innovation that is necessary to proactively confront such challenges.

As Ellen Langer wrote in her book, Mindfulness, when individuals, teams and organizations continue to see today’s world through the lens of yesterday, they are likely to keep applying yesterday’s strategies when doing so is no longer effective. And as Clayton Christensen described in The Innovator’s Dilemma, it can be very difficult for management teams and their organizations to acknowledge that the paradigm around them has changed, and instead of responding in an adaptive manner, too many organizations redouble their investments in legacy business models or technologies.

In some rare cases, individuals are able to push back against team consensus and help organizations recognize and proactively respond to changes in the competitive landscape. For example, a senior executive in a traditional financial services organization recognized that the organization needed to embrace new technologies in order to engage with Millennials. She then pushed her team, and the CEO, to make several strategic acquisitions despite the fact that her colleagues and superiors were skeptical of her recommendations, based on the low margins and unproven market size of the new targeted demographic. When this kind of investment pays off, individuals like this financial services executive are viewed as courageous and heroic, and are celebrated for their conviction and powers of persuasion. However, counting on individual bravery and heroism is not a good strategy for team leaders or team members who want to ensure solid decision-making processes and outcomes.

One strategy that can significantly help teams avoid the dangers of Groupthink and successfully respond to emerging threats and opportunities is to create structured debates. This is done by randomly assigning different team members to argue opposing points of view. Structured debates can provide an opportunity to rigorously discuss and dispute interpretations of current trends, as well as future predictions, in a kind of organizational “safe mode” that enables teams to explore external risks without putting individual members of the team at internal risk.

In the basic form of a structured debate, which can take place either during a regular team meeting or at an offsite, a team can randomly select members to two or more subteams, each of which is tasked with making specific arguments. Set up the debate with scenarios such as:

  • Our organization’s technology, products, strategy, or business model will be obsolete within x years. Here’s what will replace it, and here’s what we need to do now to survive and thrive.
  • Our team’s design and/or organizational structure is outdated. Even if we can’t start from scratch and completely redesign our team or restructure our organization, here’s what we can do now to set ourselves up for greater success in the future.
  • We are rewarding and punishing (or at least withholding rewards for) the wrong things in our organization. We are rewarding only those who drive short-term profits in our existing businesses and we are not encouraging those who invest time and effort in experimenting in new areas that may only pay off over the long term. Here’s how we should update our performance appraisal systems and criteria to reward those who help set the foundation for our success in the future.
  • Our team’s predictions for key trends, results, or performance are wrong. Here’s a more likely scenario and here’s what we need to debate, decide and do differently based on these updated estimates.
  • We are discounting or ignoring the feedback from our customers, complaints from our critics, or requests from our stakeholders. Here’s what we should be taking far more seriously, and here’s how we should respond.

Putting this method to work, the senior management team of an industrial equipment manufacturer conducted an exercise during which the organization’s structure was discussed and debated. Half of the team was asked to argue that the organization’s current design made sense, and the other half of the team was asked to argue that the organization’s design needed to be changed. As a result of the open consideration of alternatives, the senior management team decided to disband a mid-level operating team that no longer served a purpose, freeing up those managers to focus on their individual areas. Without going through the exercise of rigorously debating whether changes needed to be made, the no-longer efficient status quo would have been maintained.

The questions listed above are just examples, of course. Any other topics for discussion or debate that enable the team to critically consider fundamental issues, assumptions, or strategies can be helpful. Structuring debate can help overcome individual and team reluctance to ask and answer the tough questions about how the world has changed or is changing, and how the organization needs to evolve accordingly. The answers in turn can set up the team to successfully adapt to the present, while also creating the foundation for future innovation and success.

Used by permission of the author. Originally published on the Harvard Business Review blog.
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Ben Dattner

Ben Dattner is an executive coach, organizational development consultant, and the founder of New York City–based Dattner Consulting, LLCHe is the author of Credit and Blame at Work: How better assessment can improve individual, team and organizational performance, published by Simon & Schuster.
Ben Dattner
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About Author

Ben Dattner is an executive coach, organizational development consultant, and the founder of New York City–based Dattner Consulting, LLC He is the author of Credit and Blame at Work: How better assessment can improve individual, team and organizational performance, published by Simon & Schuster.

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