Groupthink: Good or Bad?

Stephen DeAngelis

March 27, 2007

Most creativity gurus harangue about the dangers of “groupthink.” They go to great lengths to develop and teach techniques that prevent groupthink from becoming the norm in an organization. The term “groupthink” was coined in 1952 by William H. Whyte in Fortune magazine:

“Groupthink being a coinage — and, admittedly, a loaded one — a working definition is in order. We are not talking about mere instinctive conformity — it is, after all, a perennial failing of mankind. What we are talking about is a rationalized conformity — an open, articulate philosophy which holds that group values are not only expedient but right and good as well.”

When looking for innovation, however, conformity is anathema. Whyte’s working definition isn’t the best known. Irving Janis, who wrote extensively on the subject, defined it this way:

“A mode of thinking that people engage in when they are deeply involved in a cohesive in-group, when the members’ strivings for unanimity override their motivation to realistically appraise alternative courses of action.” [Janis, Irving L. Victims of Groupthink. Boston. Houghton Mifflin Company, 1972, page 9]

You get the idea. When groupthink becomes the dominant paradigm in a business it can crush innovation. Innovators rarely worry about group cohesiveness or getting along. They might not all be clear-eyed pragmatists either.  Janis notes that groupthink results in the lack of realistic appraisal of alternative courses of action. Innovators may be willing to take alternative paths but often those courses of action are not very realistic either. Since the invention of the Internet, critics have started to think about and define groupthink differently. They talk about the power of the many to outthink the few. Patti Waldmeir, writing last year in the Financial Times, discussed this other side of groupthink [“Why groupthink is the genius of the internet,” 9 August 2006]. She begins with a short history lesson and a question:

“Friedrich Hayek, liberal philosopher and economist, was born in the 19th century. Did he accidentally predict the genius of the internet? Back in 1973, when not even the average nerd knew about the net, Hayek was writing: ‘Each member of society can have only a small fraction of the knowledge possessed by all and … civilisation rests on the fact that we all benefit from knowledge which we do not possess.’ That certainly sounds like a manifesto for blogs and wikis and all the other smart collaborative tools of the information society. Like democracy, they are based on the wonderfully egalitarian notion that even the lowliest among us has something useful to contribute. But can that possibly be true?”

Of course, defining groupthink as “collective wisdom” is far different than defining it as everyone thinking alike. That, however, is how Waldmeir has chosen to define it. She does so because she really wants to review a book [Infotopia: How Many Minds Produce Knowledge] by Professor Cass Sunstein, who Waldmeir describes as “one of the biggest of America’s internet big thinkers.” She writes:

[Professor Sunstein] “argues that Hayek’s insights about the genius of markets are equally true of the internet. Each individual has incomplete knowledge about things that really matter – but if we get together and share what we know, we can solve our problems, whether that means setting prices or coming up with other solutions based on massive amounts of widely distributed information. All this has implications for how legislatures make laws – the current battle in the US Congress over broadband regulation has been motivated largely by blogs – but also for some of the most basic principles of American law. Prof Sunstein argues, for example, that sharing scientific information online would cure some of the worst problems of the US patent system and foster innovation much more efficiently than costly patent litigation. Many companies are already using wikis to get employees thinking together online, with surprising improvements in efficiency.”

Progress is being made along some of the lines being suggested. Since Waldmeir wrote her column, the U.S. Patent Service has begun an experiment that hopes to take advantage of the Web. I recently posted a blog on that subject [A Wiki-Patent Process]. My company, Enterra Solutions, has also started using its own wiki to share information. I’ll write more about corporate wikis in a later post. But with progress comes concerns. Waldmeir notes that nothing is perfect and collective wisdom can be mistaken. People don’t seem to understand that, however. She notes:

“The average broadband-connected American adult relies on this aggregated information for an astonishing – if not frightening – array of basic information about daily life. Our household recently had an outbreak of headlice, and I gleaned far more knowledge about louse lifestyle and treatment from Google than from the doctor. … Well, as Hayek and Prof Sunstein would say, that is the human condition: none of us has all the answers. But some of us are not just uninformed, we are actually wrong. Wikipedia, the free online encyclopedia used by millions of people around the globe, insisted in its lice section that I wash my daughters’ hair in dog shampoo. The doctor said that was not a good idea. The genius of Wikipedia is that anyone can edit out such errors. It is not just written by the hoi polloi, it is peer-reviewed by them too. So it is usually remarkably accurate – but that kind of thing does make one wonder. Prof Sunstein recognises all the potential flaws of such collaborative projects. ‘For aggregating information, the internet offers great risk as well as extraordinary promise,’ he writes. In the digital world, obtaining the views – right or wrong – of millions of people is virtually effortless. ‘Every day, like-minded people can and do sort themselves into echo chambers of their own design, leading to wild errors, undue confidence, and unjustified extremism,’ he says.”

The bottom line is that Waldmeir’s definition of groupthink as collective wisdom works great if you are dealing with informed and intelligent people — but the Internet offers no such assurances. Given the choice, however, between broad or limited connectivity, I’ll always select the former.