Organisations with creative, diverse approaches to problems tend to find better solutions to their problems. Groupthink is one of the biggest causes of a lack of organizational creativity and financially hurts a business. So, the question is: how do you boost creativity and avoid group think in your organization?
Group think is very, very common in all settings. And you’re probably unaware that it’s happening. The most famous example of this is during the Bay of Pigs Invasion, where newspapers published what was intended to be a surprise invasion, but the generals decided the plan was good anyway and they should still proceed as if Cuba was unaware (Dixit 2019).
Common recommendations to promote creativity and avoid groupthink are:
1. Have discussions without leaders present
Everyone wants to impress their bosses. Nobody wants to shout out potentially stupid sounding ideas in front of their boss, so come to broad agreements without the boss in the room.
2. Ensure you have diverse staff on hire with diverse backgrounds and thought patterns (Gompers and Kovvali 2018)
If your staff are all/ mostly white men from well-off backgrounds, you are limiting the life experiences and hence thought tools available within your staff (Tulshyan 2019). People with similar backgrounds do think in similar ways and too often HR will hire on experience rather then ability to learn. If you are hiring people who will fit in culturally within your organization, you are promoting a more cohesive culture but be aware the people you hire aren’t too similar. This also applies to clothes. If you’re mandating everyone wear business attire, employees are all dressed similar and will believe that you want them to behave similarly. So let people dress how they normally would. More directly, don’t screen out job applicants who seem weird or have wrong (but common among smart people) ideas.
3. Appreciate that big contributions generally require unusual and seemingly dumb ideas
In a business context, every clearly good new business idea or well-justified product improvement has generally already been tried. To make a big impact on consumer surplus you need to do something that other people think is dumb or too risky. Usually that means you think this too. The tech start-up incubator Y Combinator famously supports businesses solely based on the founders, not the business idea (Graham 2012).
In a research context the same principle applies. The solution that’s most likely to be correct is the one everyone else is already saying, but you’re not contributing much by repeating it. Looking for new angles generally has far more value even if most of them are dead ends.
4. Remove negative cultural consequences for dumb ideas and promote positive consequences for creative thinking
KPIs are known to be a way to get people to work on their job as stated without any room for creative solutions to problems (Ryan 2015). KPIs often measure one or a few limited outcomes for employees but often cannot measure less quantifiable contributions like creative thinking or culture building. An example of a positive consequence for creative thinking could be to hold events like hackathons (with prizes) where creativity is necessary to solve the problem.
5. Shout out ideas that you consider a little bit stupid regularly to keep the discussion going
This one is my personal favourite and I have used it a lot. In the end my co-workers consider me a bit quirky, but not stupid. I regularly shout out ideas that I know won’t be accepted or are a bit outlandish because I am afraid of groupthink. This makes it more likely that others will also shout out ideas that are a bit out there and we avoid group think. The only issue with this so far is it may not affect people higher up in the organizational ladder who are too worried about looking dumb in front of people at their level.
Dixit, Jay. How JFK Inspired the Term “Groupthink” NeuroLeadership Institute. Published February 20, 2019. Accessed June 30, 2022. https://neuroleadership.com/your-brain-at-work/jfk-inspired-term-groupthink/
Gompers, Paul and Kovvali, Silpa. Finally, Evidence That Diversity Improves Financial Performance, Harvard Business Review. Published July 2018. Accessed June 30, 2022. https://hbr.org/2018/07/the-other-diversity-dividend
Graham, Paul. New: Apply to Y Combinator without an Idea | Hacker News. Ycombinator.com. Published 2012. Accessed June 30, 2022. https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=3700712
Ryan, Liz. KPIs And Corporate Stupidity. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/lizryan/2015/12/07/kpis-and-corporate-stupidity/?sh=209dcb7f4aeb. Published December 7, 2015. Accessed June 30, 2022.
Tulshyan, Ruchika. Diversity of Thought. Diversity Woman | Leadership Empowerment for Women Who Mean Business. Published December 13, 2019. Accessed June 30, 2022. https://www.diversitywoman.com/diversity-of-thought/