When embarking on a new idea or project, it is now commonplace for teams to have a brainstorming session. The premise is simple: think out loud about strategies to achieve the desired outcome and, by bouncing ideas off of each other, your team will come up with a great solution.
Sounds good? The only problem is it hardly ever works. Fortunately, research has found ways to do it better.
How to Avoid Groupthink
‘Groupthink’ is when groups performs worse than they should due to each participant striving to obtain a group consensus.
This often means that well-intentioned individuals make poor decisions simply because they don’t want to disagree with others or appear dumb. This probably has evolutionary roots, as it was safer to stay as part of the pack rather than spotlight yourself on your own. As a result, people often believe that not conforming to others will result in isolation or rejection from friendship groups.
How to Avoid Groupthink and Brainstorm Better?
The first step towards preventing groupthink is to make people aware of it. Often, groupthink will occur without the members of a team realising – therefore, if it is highlighted and people are offered guidance and rules as to how to overcome it, its prominence should be reduced.
It may be that when there is the need for discussion, be it in the classroom or within a business, teachers or managers should set up a structure where participants are split into two teams, with one group being assigned to argue in favour of a proposition, whilst the other argue against it, making people feel more comfortable and able to explore opposing views.
Assign a Devil’s Advocate
A devil’s advocate is “a person who tests a proposition by arguing against it”. Therefore, having someone who has purposely been placed within the group to disagree with other’s opinions can allow everyone to feel as though it is acceptable not to conform and express divergent opinions.
Furthermore, having someone play devil’s advocate not only encourages the consideration of new ideas that may have previously been discarded, but it also tests the strength of leading propositions, to see whether they can stand up to challenge and are in fact good ideas.
More Thinking, Less Talking
Recent research has found that people solve more problems if they have time to think about them alone than if they have to work in pairs. This may be because once a potential solution is voiced by someone else out loud, it stops people from continuing to explore alternative options. Therefore, the researchers suggest that in order to make group interactions as effective as possible, allowing some quiet self-reflection time before working in a group may help.
In fact, it was found that, when teams switch between individual and group work, far more ideas are generated in comparison to when individuals work only alone or only together.
Create a Safe Environment with Good Listeners
To brainstorm better and reduce groupthink, an environment in which everyone recognises the expectation of objective debate surrounding new ideas needs to be created. Helping people develop their listening skills (e.g. making eye contact, focusing on what is being said, rather than who is saying it etc.) will help each team member feel listened to and understand that their opinions are valued and respected.
In order to avoid groupthink, authority figures (be it teachers, managers etc.) should avoid presenting their own opinions early on. This is because, if they do so, others may feel uncomfortable disagreeing or presenting counterarguments to their views. Authority figures should look to allow the debate to reach its full extent before they express an opinion themselves.
Whilst we often assume that two heads are better than one, this may not always be the case. Two heads only become better than one when each member of the group feels comfortable voicing their true opinions and politely disagreeing with others.
Therefore, it is imperative we create safe environments where each member understands how to objectively debate and knows that their opinions will be heard and respected.