How to avoid group think and why you should

On 28 January 1986, NASA made the decision to launch The Challenger.  
That decision resulted in what is called to this day, ‘the Challenger disaster.’ 

What was the Challenger disaster? The Space Shuttle Challenger disaster was a fatal incident on January 28, 1986, in the United States space program where the Space ShuttleChallenger (OV-099) broke apart 73 seconds into its flight, killing all seven crew members aboard. (credit: Wiki). 

The saddest parts of this tragedy, and it is amazing when you read the story about, and the review into what happened, are that it could (and should have) been avoided. An Engineer told his wife the night before the launch that it would blow up. And the part that failed, causing the explosion was one (or two – depending on which website you read) O-ring, that wasn’t rated for the cold temperatures that it was exposed to.  

What does an O-ring cost? Not much is the answer. 

But what does it cost, when leaders don’t listen to their teams, when they have great ideas? In this case, the cost was significant, and tragic. 

And, from all report, there was not just one Engineer, but four, that voiced their concerns about what could happen if NASA followed through with the Challenger launch on that day – a day that was both colder than other launches, and too cold for the O-rings on the Challenger.  

But the senior Engineers (and the contractor engaged by NASA at the time) made the call to launch. Having been told what might happen. After all, the US President was going to address the American people, to tell them how well it went, and how great America and NASA were at launching space craft. 

The investigation into the Challenger disaster coined the phrase ‘group think’, which means that the group has more power over the discussion (and the decision) than those (individuals) who might know better. “Groupthink is a phenomenon that occurs when a group of individuals reaches a consensus without critical reasoning or evaluation of the consequences or alternatives. Groupthink is based on a common desire not to upset the balance of a group of people” (credit: Investopedia).  

In other words, group think doesn’t consider all opinions. Some of which might be valid. Very valid, in the case of the Challenger. 

So, just for a moment, put yourself in the position of the Contractor or Chief Engineer in 1986, and ask yourself what you would have done. What decision would you have made? What would your priorities have been? Fame, fortune, and media exposure or life preservation? 

What is important, as we learn from tragedies like the Challenger disaster, is thinking about how they can apply to our situations. Most of the time we aren’t responsible for the lives of seven humans, but at the same time, we have responsible decisions to make. 

Here is how to avoid group think. 

1. Take a priority awareness approach 

Decision making is a key requirement of leaders. Especially leaders under pressure, when they might not have all the information, or they need to decide quickly. When the human brain is in decision making mode, all that is happening is that it is processing possibilities, based on priority propositions. 

That means that all decisions are priority based. What your priority is in the moment, will determine ultimately how you make the decision. Let’s take safety for a moment, because that is the easiest was to describe this topic (and it relates to the Challenger disaster); are you focused on the safety of humans, or are you focused on production, or some other priority in the moment. 

This paragraph could be called be aware of your values, as most of the time, our priorities in the moment of decision making are a subset of our values. The way to be aware of your priorities is to be very clear, and aware of the rationale for your decision. And be able to explain that clearly. If you feel like you are trying to convince yourself or others with words like the risk is worth the reward, or we should get away with it, rethink your priorities and rethink your decision. 

Then, when you are aware of your priorities, share them, and ask for feedback or input, to ensure that others get the chance to contribute. Don’t let your priorities drive a group think mindset for the team that are making critical decisions. 

2. Have a deference to expertise approach 

As part of the review of the Challenger disaster, and a range of other major catastrophic events, the term ‘High Reliability Organisation’ (HRO) was coined. HRO theory flowed out of Normal Accident Theory, which led a group of researchers at the University of California, Berkeley (Todd LaPorte, Gene Rochlin, and Karlene Roberts) to study how organizations working with complex and hazardous systems operated error free (credit: Wiki). And how events like the Challenger disaster could have been avoided, and how similar high risk organisations did avoid those types of tragedies. 

At the core of a HRO, there are five key principles, which are essential for any improvement initiative to succeed: deference to expertise, reluctance to simplify, sensitivity to operations, commitment to resilience and preoccupation with failure. 

Although all these principles are super important, the most important principle is the deference to expertise. What that means is to defer to the person who has the most expertise to make the decision. Or defer to the group of people who have the most expertise to make the decision. In the case of the Challenger disaster, there were four Engineers who all came to the same conclusion about the O-ring temperature rating, but none of their opinions were considered (they were ignored) when it came to deciding to launch the Challenger.  

And it doesn’t matter how low you go in the organisation to defer to expertise. If it is a junior person that you need to involve in the decision, so be it. If they have the information that could help, or that could save a life, leaders are obliged to consider their input. 

Deferring to expertise is the quickest and easiest way to prevent group think. Because you overtly and openly encourage input from the right people. If you are prepared to listen to that input, you will notice how much value is added to the decision making process. 

3. Take a sunset first approach 

What is a sunset first approach? It is when you let the sun set on a major decision or the execution of a major decision. And you come back to the decision the next morning and make it then. After some thinking time (maybe not sleeping time). 

I’m hearing you, especially when you are under pressure, this is not always possible, or achievable. The decision must be made right now, or action must be taken right now.  

Or does it? 

The issue with taking a right now, as opposed to a sunset approach, is that you rush into making decisions. Or you are more worried about what your leader, or someone else, will think about the decision. I have been in senior leadership roles, where plant downtime equates to millions of lost production tonnes and dollars. A sunset approach is still the right one, when it comes to making major decisions. When you can. 

And it demonstrates to your team that you are willing to wait for the right information, or the right people, or the right time, to make a big decision. Explain to others why you are willing to wait until tomorrow, then make the decision in the morning.  

And if you don’t do any of these, just listen to people that have some value to add to the decision. Don’t let group think affect your decision making, especially when the consequences are high. 

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About Anton

Anton has dedicated his working life to helping leaders to upgrade their mindset, upskill their leadership, and uplift their teams! With a focus on helps leaders to better lead under pressure. Anton is an entrepreneur, speaker, consultant, bestselling author and founder of The Guinea Group. Over the past 19 years, Anton has worked with over 175+ global organisations, he has inspired workplace leadership, safety, and cultural change. He’s achieved this by combining his corporate expertise, education (Bachelor of HR and Psychology), and infectious energy levels.
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