Writing vs. Groupthink

Writing vs. Groupthink

"So, what do you all think?" I said. Everyone liked it. Or, at least no one disliked it. And everybody agreed that we should continue this way.

Weeks prior, I had helped the team get started with the agile framework 'Scrum', and we had now come to the monthly evaluation meeting. This was the time to raise all concerns, pain points, and suggestions for improvement, but everyone was happy.

I was surprised. I wouldn't call the last few weeks a catastrophe, but clearly, there had been problems. Problems which I was sure the whole team saw and agreed on, but at this meeting, everything seemed to be so perfect.

I was curious to find out why my perception was off, so afterwards, I talked to everyone one-on-one. There was nothing wrong with my perception. When asked individually, the team raised a tsunami of problems.

We had been victims of groupthink.

Groupthink 💘 Meetings

Groupthink is when people agree on something, even though most individuals think it's a bad idea. It might sound like compromise, but it's not.

Groupthink happens when the desire for harmony in the group is so strong that everybody agrees for the sake of agreeing.

This is bad news for the number one tool companies use for agreeing: meetings.

Meetings are the ideal breeding ground for groupthink.

In meetings, people are mostly reacting to what others are saying. The focus goes to the first thought that happens to be mentioned. It might not be the most important, it might not be what people wanted to talk about, but since it's mentioned, we better finish discussing it.

This causes meetings to go over time, with only a fraction of topics concluded.

The larger the team, the more pronounced this is. And it was exactly what was happening to us. The first person to speak thought things were good, and she was right, wasn't she? It hadn't been a catastrophe. And everyone thought to themselves, "It's probably just me who thinks there's a problem."

Write to avoid groupthink ✍

To avoid groupthink, two things need to happen:

  1. People need to know what will be discussed at the meeting.
  2. People need to think before the meeting.

It's harder to remain silent if everyone seems happy, but you are holding a piece of paper in your handwriting stating three problems.

Before our next evaluation meeting, I, therefore, send out a questionnaire asking:

  • What went well?
  • What didn't go well?
  • If we could change one thing, what should it be?

For this team, the questions related to the adoption of Scrum but they are so generic that I reckon any team can use them in any situation.

When I checked the questionnaire after a couple of days, I was overwhelmed. The answers were thoughtful and thorough. People identified issues and suggested solutions. We had hit gold.

We kept the meeting, but it now played out completely different.

Before the meeting, I boiled down people's answers to a summary. Similar thoughts were grouped, the most mentioned topics went on top, and things were exemplified here and there with quotes from the answers.

At the meeting, we went through the summary, so people got to know what others were thinking. The dominant topics were discussed, while those that just one or two mentioned were left for people to read.

Level the scale

It had two main effects. First, filling out the questionnaire provoked people to think and commit to an opinion. But, more important, it made everybody heard.

In meetings, some peoples' words carry more weight. Not always because of the soundness of their arguments, but because of how confident they seem, how often they speak, and, unfortunately, how often they interrupt.

Writing levels the scale. In a questionnaire, all answers have a weight of one. Team members who wouldn't usually speak up got a voice. The monthly questionnaire became a way for them to state their opinion.