Five Steps to Overcoming Group Think and Solving Problems Innovatively

How do you avoid groupthink, or what psychologists call “functional bias?” My friends in the “big data” and artificial intelligence industry believe the solution is the algorithm. Executive teams often decide whether to accept the “big data” solution to a problem, based on analyzing very large volumes of a wide variety of data, or do something else. The something else is often follow the leader’s or the group’s collective intuition. Intuition-driven decisions are often based on groupthink, or functional bias.

Functional bias occurs when colleagues have little cognitive diversity. Teams with little cognitive diversity will think alike and solve problems in a similar matter.  Even people from different cultures, races and genders can think alike.

Studies on the impact of visual diversity (race, age, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and gender) on complex problem solving and innovation are mixed. Some studies show that visual diversity is helpful. Others do not.

There is growing evidence, however, that the companies that put more effort into visually diversifying their workforces and new product development and innovation teams become more efficient, productive and profitable–especially in high technology, high knowledge based, global industries that are more complex and have a high need for innovation. Visually diversifying your workforce, however, brings with it challenges of socialization, communication and working well together. The teams that learn to overcome these challenges with effective communication and group operating norms tend to do well. (To learn more, read “Does Demographic Diversity Lead to More Innovation”).

My experience in solving complex problems in general and those involving global innovation teams is that visual diversity does help. For example, the approach my company needed to market new medical device products in India was very different than the approach in the US and Europe. Without Indian nationals on the team, it would not have succeeded.

When solving complex workforce issues, such as benefit offerings and flexible workplace systems, it is important to have employees of visual diversity as part of the problem-solving teams. For example, when creating lactation rooms for new mothers in your workforce, in addition to researching your state and municipal regulations, I found adding new mothers to the team improved the solution.

Many researchers have made a valid and empirical point about cognitive diversity: when team members think alike, even if they have visual diversity, they will often struggle to creatively solve a new problem.

In organizations, people try fit in with the current culture. This includes what they wear, what they say, how feedback is gathered, how decisions are made, and their openness to change. Many organizations recruit for “cultural fit,” which promotes cognitive sameness and groupthink. (For more on cultural fit, read “Does Hiring for Cultural Fit Work”.

British researchers, writing in the Harvard Business Review, support the need for cognitive diversity on teams that are trying to solve new and complex situations[i]. They ran an exercise with more than 100 executive groups, focused on managing new, uncertain and complex situations. The exercise required the groups to formulate and execute a strategy to achieve a specified outcome, against the clock.

The teams with the highest cognitive diversity solved the problem more quickly. Visual diversity had little impact on success. Some of the more homogeneous thinking teams, such as a group of R&D engineers and another group of IT consultants, never solved the problem.

The problem is, it is hard to identify cognitive diversity among individuals!

Problem solving teams need cognitive diversity to see things differently, experiment (not just analyze), engage in new ways, and create truly new options. The British researchers state that cognitively alike people underestimate their team’s common way of thinking and problem solving, while observers readily see their similarity and limited thinking.

How do you overcome cognitive similarity within a team? My solutions are:

  1. Make sure your recruiting practices identify employees of different cognitive diversity. While you certainly want to attract professionally competent employees who are excited about your organization’s purpose and share your values and ethics, don’t hire for cultural fit.
  2. Hire from different academic and professional backgrounds.
  3. When forming new problem solving or innovation teams, assess how its potential members think, using assessments such as Basadur Creative Problem Solving Profile (CPSP) Inventory. Then, make sure you include people of cognitive diversity.
  4. Include team members who will be impacted by the decisions of the team because they will have a vested interest in the recommendations the team makes.
  5. Employ an independent group, outside of your organization and its cultural influence, to solve the same problem. Then, compare the results.

Have you had success with overcoming group think?  Please share your thoughts. Jon the discussion!

Victor Assad is the CEO of Victor Assad Strategic Human Resources Consulting and is a Managing Partner of InnovationOne. He consults on innovation, global talent management, developing agile leaders and teams, and other strategic initiatives. Questions? Please e-mail Victor at victorassad6@gmail.com or visit www.victorhrconsultant.comFor innovation visit www.InnovationOne.io.

[i] Alison Reynolds and David Lewis (March 30, 2017) “Teams Solve Problems Faster When They’re More Cognitively Diverse,” The Harvard Business Review. Found at https://hbr.org/2017/03/teams-solve-problems-faster-when-theyre-more-cognitively-diverse.

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