Published here March 2006.


Musings Index

"Groupthink", Good or Bad?

From time to time we receive interesting questions from visitors to this web site. We try our best to give a useful answer though recipients and readers should view the responses in the light of their own particular circumstances and exercise their own judgment. Here is one such question, edited slightly for web presentation.

On 1/16/06, Dave W. wrote


I wanted to let you know that I found your PM Glossary, and bookmarked it immediately. So, thanks for compiling that!

I would also like to hear your thoughts on "groupthink" - specifically: Is groupthink ever good when hypothetical objections are relatively minor?

My question stems from a project management job I had a few years ago. When I was initially hired, I was given a huge responsibility with a flagship product - we had stakeholders all around the company. Initially, and at the advice of my lead, for issues that required stakeholder input I'd walk over to their office and have a "one-on-one" with them.

However what I noticed was that the stakeholders generally had differing opinions on any topic I would bring to them, and get hung up on points minor to a big picture view. It almost seemed like they were pushing back as a knee-jerk reaction. From my perspective I just wanted to get work done, and getting stakeholders to sign on was frustrating, especially as a new hire, because their approval of the project's direction, even the minor details, was important.

However, when I got them all in the same room those finer points of the project, that they were adamant about a day earlier, just melted away. If there was one takeaway I had from that job, it was the importance of group meetings. I noticed a tendency for people not to voice their minor objections that were argued very passionately in private. What would you call that? If nothing else, it allowed me to get sign-on and move forward.

Is this groupthink or consensus? Should project managers try to convince others in one-on-one meetings, in order to avoid groupthink and make sure no objection is ignored, or is it better to expedite the project? Where is the balance? It is certainly easier to get everyone in the same room and knock off issues, but will this create a better product? It raised a lot of questions for me that I still have, and I was hoping you could shed some light on the subject.

On 1/16/06 Max replied:

Thanks, Dave, for your comments, always appreciated and I am glad you are finding the Glossary useful.

Well, you asked for my opinion and it is that I view "groupthink" as always bad, but it does need careful handling. It can be that groupthink is even worse in an open session, especially if the attendees are not well matched in experience and/or seniority. The loudmouths can carry the day with very poor decisions resulting. You need a lot of skill as a facilitator to handle that.

Ask yourself - what is the real project objective? Is it peace and quiet, or a successfully beneficial product from the project?

From my own experience, seeking a "consensus" is not ideal either - that usually leads to the lowest common denominator.

I think that you, as the project manager, have to have a very clear idea of the project's goals and objectives, make them quite clear to all concerned, and ask individuals whether or to what extent their position stands up to those objectives.

If there are genuine competing demands then I think you can ask the group to prioritize them and let the result fall out that way.

In the last analysis, what you want is "consent" from the principle stakeholders to have the project proceed along the best path. Vijay Verma and I have written about this in a paper some time ago. You will find it on this page:

Hope that helps,

Footnote: Note that "groupthink" is not the same as "consensus". Groupthink is the bland adherence to perceived conventional or group wisdom without much analysis. Consensus, on the other hand, is at least collective judgment or opinion reached by the group as a whole, following considered individual thought and persuasion.

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