Five Flavours of Groupthink

I’ve worked with enough product teams now to spot the early signs of groupthink. It’s the mechanism by which a team allows itself to develop and launch bad products – and it’s endemic across all industries. Here’s a beginners guide to spotting the different flavours of groupthink:

1. Groupthink by delusion

This is a particularly dangerous incarnation of groupthink as the team actually believe what they are collectively doing is right (and they defend their direction fanatically). Characterised by plenty of kool-aid, high-fiving and backslapping.

2. Groupthink by politeness

This is when some (if not all) of the team members know that they’re on the wrong track, but they’re too polite to actually do anything about it! Better to go with the flow than risk upsetting anyone’s feelings or saying something indecorous. Highly prevalent in teams that lack diversity where cultural norms around respect and hierarchy can take hold.

3. Groupthink by deferment

Takes place in teams tackling highly technical challenges. So called “experts” mistake experience for wisdom and the team starts to defer to the higher authority without challenging or questioning the direction.

4. Groupthink by self preservation

Sometimes doing nothing is safer than doing anything at all. In big, slow moving organisations, if you’re the one challenging the status quo you risk putting your head above the parapet. Better to keep your head down, nod along and keep smiling? When the whole team starts doing this you’re in real trouble.

5. Groupthink by isolation

By far the most common form of groupthink. This is where product teams start designing products for people like themselves. Often NPD teams are formed of marketing and engineering folk. Rarely is there a customer service representative in the team (and rarer still – a living breathing customer!). You can spot this when team members tell stories about their own life experiences that seem to validate that they’re building something customers will want. Fortunately this groupthink is easily quashed by getting the team out of the office and onto the street.

And the bonus flavour: Groupthink by diktat

This is the saddest form of groupthink: it’s where talented teams are wasted by being told to develop products that their bosses have decided are “the next big thing”. These are characterised by monthly meetings in which the product team ritually puts the monthly PowerPoint presentation together and waits for their one hour time slot to go in and see the boss. The real tragedy is that most senior “leaders” are actually managers who are there to make the business-as-usual happen as efficiently as possible. Team morale takes a dive when they launch what they’ve been told to launch and it flops in market. Surprised? The boss is but the team are not. They knew it all along but did nothing.

If you can spot one of these flavours of groupthink in your organisation, it’s definitely worth getting an external partner like us on board. We’re here to listen, understand, and then to mercilessly crush groupthink by getting you closer to customers and bringing inspirational insight-led ideas right to the heart of your team.