Bob Lieberman's Blog

Commentary and Tools For Empowering Change

Groupthink and Crowdsourcing In Teams

There's a great scene in the latest X-Men movie. In a boardroom at the Pentagon, the chairman asks twenty or so generals if the US should bomb Russia. After the obligatory dramatic pause, all hands go up enthusiastically and in unison. It's a laughable moment in a so-so movie, but a very instructive example of groupthink.

In business, we have committee meetings like that all the time. Usually conducted in one physical location, there is frequently an authority figure present. In this environment fraught with social influence, opinions are shared, voting is public, and there can be significant political consequences for expressing one's opinion. As a result, innovative decisions are rare, and bold posturing is as common as meek acquiescence. It's a familiar story, and a main reason why many businesses are not as effective as they could be.

On the other side of the coin we have crowdsourcing, a group collaboration practice which has become very popular lately. In crowdsourcing, the judgement of the members of a large group is solicited individually and anonymously. Usually, the group as a whole proves to be wiser than even its most expert members, a phenomenon known as the crowd effect. There are limitations, of course, but crowdsourcing is a valuable practice that capitalizes on diversity in the best possible way.

Now comes a Swiss study, reported in arstechnica, demonstrating that groupthink and crowdsourcing are two sides of the same coin:
"...even mild social influence can undermine the wisdom of crowd effect in simple estimation tasks."
This finding is profoundly disturbing for business decision-making. Anonymity – the absence of social influence – undermines teamwork and business relationships. But, as the Swiss study shows, it seems necessary to insure the quality of group decisions. What is a leader to do?

I'll leave you to ponder that question and conduct your own experiments. I know there are innovative solutions out there, and I'd love to hear about yours.