Stimulating Effective Collaboration – Enabling Group Decision Making

“When there are many who contribute to the process of deliberation, each can bring his share of goodness and moral prudence…some appreciate one part, some another, and all together appreciate all.”

– Aristotle

Collaboration and the wisdom of crowds is a central tenet of an effective Agile team.  The belief in the wisdom of crowds, or that two heads are better than one is the basis for creating opportunities for team members to participate in collaborative sessions that stimulate creativity, ingenuity and innovation.

However, this is easier said than done, and groups often find themselves in the mode of “groupthink”.

The findings of Cass Sunstein and Reid Hastie in the HBR article, “Making Dumb Groups Smarter” identifies reasons that lead to group think and offer ways in which we can create the right environment to stimulate effective collaboration and avail of the wisdom of crowds.

The article talks about the reasons why groups often succumb to “groupthink”.  Incorrect Informational signals from other group members is a primary reason that leads groups astray.  Reputational pressures also often lead people to change their views or silence themselves for fear of penalty.  Groups that make poor or self-destructive decisions often have one of these reasons to blame:

Amplifying Errors – Groups often amplify the errors of their members.

Cascade Effects – People often follow the statements and actions of those who spoke first.

Polarizing Groups – In a group setting, people often take more extreme positions than the ones held before.

Focusing on “what everybody already knows” – Information held by all group members has more influence on groups judgments than information held by a few.

So what can we do to avoid these from getting in the way of effective collaboration within our Agile teams?

Silence the leaders – When leaders express their views early, other members in the group often restrain themselves from expressing their views, thereby discouraging disagreement and stifling valuable information from emerging.

Leaders can take an active role in avoid these situations by refusing to take a firm position early on, thereby creating a space for information to emerge.  Leaders can indicate a willingness and desire to hear uniquely held information.  In a group where members are of mixed status, leaders and facilitators can liberate people to speak up by creating a more open setting by asking candid opinions of everyone present.

 “Prime” Critical Thinking – People often silence themselves when they think they will be punished for disclosing information that runs counter to the group’s inclination.

Engaging participants in a prior task that involves “getting along” or “critical thinking” has been shown to have a big impact on the above problem.  A “Getting along” exercise is found to silence people while a “critical thinking” exercise encourages people to disclose information.

Reward Group Success –  When people receive only a fraction of the benefits of disclosing information, they are likely to keep silent while rewarding a group encourages the disclosure of information.

Cascades are avoided when the individuals knows he/she has little to gain from a correct individual decision and everything to gain from a correct group decision.  Creating incentives to reward group success and finding ways for people to identify with a group’s success will ensure open, active participation.

Assign distinctive and relevant Roles – Bias in favor of shared information is reduced when participants are openly assigned specific roles – focusing on different areas of expertise.

Assigning distinctive and relevant roles or distinctive areas of focus to individuals in a group and sharing these roles with the group will create a more open forum for more sensible information sharing and aggregation.

Appoint a Devil’s advocate ­­– A devil’s advocate who takes a position contrary to the group’s inclination can often stimulate more candid conversations.

Appoint a devil’s advocate who is urged to take a position contrary to that of the group’s.  The devil’s advocate avoids social pressure because they have been charged with that role.  Authentic decent is far more powerful that an appointed devil’s advocate.

Establish contrarian teams – Similar to devil’s advocates, “Red Teaming” can be a very effective way to avoid group think.

Red Teams come in two basic forms:  those that try to defeat the primary team in a simulated mission, and those that construct the strong possible case against a proposal or plan.  Red teams can be very effective in trying to find mistakes and exploit vulnerabilities in a particular line of thinking.

The Delphi Method – A mix of the virtues of individual thinking with social learning.   In this method, final judgments or votes are given anonymously but only after deliberation.  Anonymity insulates group members from reputational pressures and reduces the problem of self-silencing.

Create collaborative sessions where people are able to express their individual points of view with the pressure of their peers or their reputation and then encourage discussion based on the different points of view.

Based on a wonderful article “Making Dumb Groups Smarter” by Cass R. Sunstein and Reid Hastie in the December 2014 edition of the Harvard Business Review.

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