Take Advantage of Your Entire Group, Avoid Groupthink

By Ian Belloli

When working in a group, have you ever felt like you had to go along with the majority even if you didn’t agree with the decision? The desire to conform is a powerful element of human nature, and often leads to irrational decisions. Once an idea is proposed in a group setting, the members of the group often feed off of it in an effort to avoid conflict. Thus, the product of the group’s brainstorming is, often, their very first idea. However, it’s rare that this idea is actually the best solution to the problem.

The point of a group is that it is comprised of individuals, who each bring different experiences and ideas with them. It’s through their combined expertise that the best solutions can be wrought. However, most teams get stuck in this first-solution glory: put simply, they don’t know how to effectively solve problems as a group. Often, group leaders make decisions without full input from the rest of their team, discouraging others from criticizing their ideas. This process is called groupthink and occurs when well-intentioned people make rash decisions in an effort to conform to the group.

Sometimes, groupthink occurs as an effort to not challenge the status quo, or to adhere to social pressures within the group. For example, an intern may avoid presenting her ideas to the regional manager due to her hierarchal status within the group.

Take, for example, the phenomenon of wrong-side surgeries, in which a surgeon accidentally operates on the wrong side of the targeted location. Although rare, the Journal of the American Medical Association stated that this occurs 1300-2700 times every year.[1]Often, the main reason the surgery was completed on the wrong side of the body was the unwillingness of the other observers to speak up to the surgeon.[2] Despite the very real consequences of a wrong-side surgery, the power of groupthink was too strong to overcome.

While groupthink is most prevalent in professional settings, it originates long before people enter the workforce. Built into worldwide educational systems is a prevalence of structure: from organized homework assignments to a tightly knit class schedule, following a specific structure and not disturbing the status quo is expected and encouraged. This continues to how students are taught: most often, they are rewarded for following a strict process and getting the correct answer. Students are discouraged, and sometimes even punished, for attempting to find another solution.

We are not teaching creativity and problem solving in our schools. Rather, we are teaching students how to obey a rigid outline and never question it. Students are asked what is the right answer and what is the correct process to get the right answer? Rarely are students asked to discover this process for themselves

Without being taught this creativity in schools, it becomes much more difficult to develop it professionally. We are so used to being given the roadmap to the correct answer that we shut down when we are given only a compass.

From a very young age, we are taught that there is one solution, and one path to find it. It’s no wonder, then, that such skills carry over into the professional world—we are comfortable with a presented solution and have never been taught to question the process. Such lack of creative teaching in schools only encourages groupthink.

While most of us will never be in an operating room watching a surgeon work on the incorrect side of the patient, groupthink still abounds in our work settings—and lies waiting as a potential threat.

Convergence techniques, of course, vary. One well-loved option is to have each member of the group vote private for their three favorite ideas generated in the divergence phase. Private voting reduces the possibility for groupthink, as any outside pressures are hidden. After tallying the votes, the group can eliminate the bottom half of ideas, and analyze the top ideas.

Developing pro and con lists is an effective way to generate analysis and note flaws and opportunities. The group leader will then guide the group in their discussion as they discuss their best options. The purpose of the convergence state is to narrow down the options through logical analysis.

When we naturally problem solve, we mesh the divergence and convergence stages together. However, engaging them at once puts a dangerous halt to the divergence stage. It discourages idea exploration, eliminates creativity, and limits the power of diverse teams in coming up with solutions.

Previous brainstorming ideas, such as Alex Osborn’s—in which group members toss out as many ideas as possible, build off others’ ideas, and avoid criticism early on—are flawed in their rushed approach to convergence. As intuitive as Osborn’s idea may appear, decades of study prove that his method creates a dangerously early convergence. [3] Groups that use this traditional approach will be less effective and less creative in comparison to groups who employ the separated divergence and convergence approach.

Art Markman’s HBS article, “Your Team Is Brainstorming All Wrong,” sums it up well:

“When people work together, their ideas tend to converge. As soon as one person throws out an idea, it affects the memory of everyone in the group and makes them think a bit more similarly about the problem than they did before. In contrast, when people work alone, they tend to diverge in their thinking, because everyone takes a slightly different path to thinking about the problem.”[4]

Divergence and convergence aren’t rocket science. Rather, they’re a simple yet effective tool that can boost any group’s brainstorming power. Teams trained in these concepts can easily engage in effective, unbiased problem-solving meetings.

Following the divergence and convergence framework leads to greater efficiency in problem solving while minimizing the negative effects of groupthink.

Last Modified 7/16/20


[1] SC Seiden and P. Barach, “Wrong-Side/Wrong-Site, Wrong-Procedure, and Wrong-Patient Adverse Events: Are They Preventable?,” Arch Surg. 141, no. 9 (2006):931–939, doi:10.1001/archsurg.141.9.931

[2] Susanne Hempel, Melinda Maggard-Gibbons, David K. Nguyen, Aaron J. Dawes, Isomi Miake-Lye, Jessica M. Beroes, Marika J. Booth, Jeremy N. V. Miles, Roberta Shanman, and Paul G. Shekelle, “Wrong-Site Surgery, Retained Surgical Items, and Surgical Fires,” JAMA Surgery 150, no. 8 (January 2015): 796, https://doi.org/10.1001/jamasurg.2015.0301

[3] Brian Mullen, Craig Johnson, and Eduardo Salas, “Productivity Loss in Brainstorming Groups: A Meta-Analytic Integration,” Basic and Applied Social Psychology 12, no. 1 (1991):3-23, https://doi.org/10.1207/s15324834basp1201_1

[4] Art Markman, Emma Seppala, Emma Schootstra, Dirk Deichmann, Evgenia Dolgova, and Priscilla Claman, “Your Team Is Brainstorming All Wrong,” Harvard Business Review, last modified October 18, 2017, https://hbr.org/2017/05/your-team-is-brainstorming-all-wrong

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