Researchers studied four virtual task forces that were set up to recommend a process to make Americans’ health care records electronic. They found that the groups who avoided groupthink followed three steps: 1) They challenged the status quo; 2) They adopted a placeholder solution that allowed them to agree on broad principles even if they disagreed on the details; and 3) They celebrated progress towards a final agreement, which allowed them to maintain morale and momentum.
When organizations need to solve a problem, they often create a task force, selection panel, or steering/advisory committee. These groups are tasked with developing consensus around new ideas, such as procedures, policies, products, or services.
Unfortunately, research shows that consensus-based problem-solving groups are often where innovative ideas go to die. These groups are highly prone to groupthink – quick agreement around status quo solutions with little discussion or deliberation.
Yet not all consensus-based problem-solving groups engage in groupthink. We wanted to learn from the exceptions — when and how do they keep new ideas alive? We conducted a study in which we examined verbatim transcripts from four virtual task forces established in 2004, by the American Health Information Community (AHIC). Their goal was to figure out and recommend a process to the U.S. secretary of health and human services to make American’s health care records electronic by 2014.
Recommending a new national protocol required embracing tectonic change with tremendous risk. At the time, there was no standard technology platform for health care providers, and no common technical language or coordination efforts across state lines. There were also significant legal, security and privacy concerns ranging from cybersecurity to patient privacy.
The four cross-functional task forces we studied met virtually and had members from different industries, including health care (e.g., doctors, nurses, a hospital president), insurance (e.g., insurance executives), technology (e.g., executives from IT, internet-based medical services, telemedicine experts) and government agencies (e.g., the Veterans’ Association, the U.S. Treasury).
What we found is that the groups that avoided groupthink engaged in the following steps:
1. They challenged the status quo.
People have a tendency to believe that existing solutions must be good. Groups are tempted to gravitate towards the status quo because the`y don’t face a high cost if they fail. (E.g., “Others used it before and it worked then, so it’s not our fault that it didn’t work now.”)
What we saw in the groups that overcame groupthink is that it began with one member expressing dissatisfaction with the status quo. For example, one group we studied had the following conversation about whether patients should be able to see who had accessed their electronic health record:
When Ken uttered the word “onerous” it changed the direction of the conversation, because it attacked the usefulness of the status quo.
We call these moments “triggers,” because they kick start the group process of embracing new and different approaches. Triggers give members an opportunity to reveal how they each view the problem at hand. In the above conversation, Kevin interpreted the comment “onerous” in terms of how the backup system functioned. Dan spoke from the perspective of the patient, who may not have the time or interest to carefully look through the audit. And Ryan interpreted the audit system not allowing for patient control as onerous.
2. They adopt a placeholder solution.
The next key moment in avoiding groupthink is when a member reacts to the trigger by proposing a placeholder solution. We call these “liminal ideas” — while they may not be the final solution, they function as transitional placeholders that allow the group to think both concretely (i.e., drilling down on how the idea might work) and abstractly (i.e., developing agreement around the broader principle in question).
Often times, the pressure to make a correct evaluation — especially for experts — can feel paralyzing when errors are costly. The groups we studied worried that if they made incorrect recommendations, they would lose their reputation at best, and at worst dismantle the health care system and so harm human life.
Treating new ideas as liminal (rather than literal) allowed members to relieve some of this pressure and enter into a transitional space where play and experimentation were encouraged. In the above conversation, when Kevin says: “Say a patient gives Dr. Jones permission to view and incorporate their information,” rather than selling the group a great idea, he invites members to play and experiment with him to make the idea work.
3. They celebrate progress towards final agreement.
When groups are tasked with coming to consensus on a course of action, agreement feels good — it denotes progress and group belonging. Delaying agreement can feel very stressful as it requires acknowledging uncertainty, which groups can interpret as failure or a lack of progress. Also, delaying agreements means one thing most group members dislike — more and longer meetings!
Teams who adopt a liminal idea can come to consensus around the “why” of an idea, even if they disagree about how they’re going to execute it. They can then frame a lack of final agreement as progress and so maintain morale and forward momentum.
In the above conversation, Daniel acknowledged the team had “broad agreement about some of these elements,” while Dan notes that the group was at a “good starting point.” Celebrating moments of progress has been shown to help teams build morale and forward momentum to take on difficult and challenging tasks.
To avoid groupthink in your teams we recommend managers take the following three steps. First, when evaluating a set of options specifically denote time on your agenda to challenge the status quo. Discuss how the solutions that have been used before might not solve the current problem you face. Next, encourage the group to adopt and discuss a liminal idea. Then identify and celebrate moments of broad agreement. Acknowledge the group’s positive progress when members agree to the why even when disagreeing about the how. These tactics will help teams keep fresh ideas alive to fuel organizational creativity and innovation.
Copyright 2022 Harvard Business School Publishing Corp. Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate.