How Your Organization Can Avoid Groupthink

As an association executive, you want your events to be unique and original. You want your members to come back year after year. And you want the word to spread about how valuable your programs are so that attendance and membership increases. In general, meeting these goals can be an efficient process. But when it comes to planning meetings with a committee, it can be slower going or, in some cases, downright frustrating. That’s because of “groupthink.”

Coined by social psychologist Irving Janis in 1972, groupthink refers to a situation in which a homogeneous group aims for consensus. In such groups, people avoid speaking up or going against the grain in order to keep the peace. They will make decisions that are against common sense, or they may fail to share original ideas in order to conform. Needless to say, groupthink remains one of the biggest killers of creativity and innovation in organizations.

While you may have already implemented measures to avoid groupthink in board meetings, if you plan your association events with a committee and wonder why they fall short or why you end up with the same, dull events year after year, maybe groupthink has crept into the planning process there as well. Fortunately, there are ways to turn that situation around. I once pitched a reality-show concept to a pioneer in that industry and was invited into the creative process to see how it all comes together. I learned a lot about how to avoid groupthink during that experience, and I’m going to share five key points. Because, essentially, TV show producers and an event-planning committee have the same aim: to put on a good show that’s going to drive up ratings and numbers.

1. Bring in an impartial outsider. Bring someone to each meeting who knows nothing about your project. Even better: Bring someone who knows nothing about your industry. He or she will be able to look at things your committee is considering with a fresh, unbiased perspective and won’t be influenced (or mired) by history.

2. Have people write down and submit anonymous suggestions. Place all suggestions in a box, then read them out loud. If everyone else likes an idea, you can feel free to claim it or not. Since the ideas are anonymous, everyone should feel free to comment on them without judgment. The object of this exercise is to stimulate creativity. You’ll find that it results in many more unique ideas than you would have had when things weren’t anonymous.

3. Break into small, diverse groups to discuss ideas. Sometimes people will speak their minds more freely in a small group because the environment feels less pressured. Also, groups with a diverse makeup will foster innovation because the discourse won’t be limited to similar perspectives when approaching a problem. So try to group together people from different cultures, genders, races, ages and educational backgrounds.

4. Have a devil’s advocate in the room. Always have one person responsible for challenging an idea and giving all the reasons it wouldn’t work. This person is important because, as in the case of the TV show, the team counts on him or her to explain exactly why a shot couldn’t be done or when a storyline wasn’t believable, no matter how much the group likes the idea. The devil’s advocate probably won’t be the most popular person in the room, however, so tap a different person to play the role each meeting—it gives everyone an equal opportunity to be the bad guy.

5. Appoint someone to be the opposite of the devil’s advocate. No matter how wild and crazy the ideas are, this person would be tasked with pushing on in favor of wild and crazy, always asking, “Why not?” This will keep you from shooting down all ideas before they’re thought through.

Even if you plan your meetings with the help of a committee, they can still result in fresh and unique programming. Using these techniques will prevent the occurrence of groupthink at your next planning session and let committee members’ ideas run free. Get the ball rolling and your upcoming function could be the big hit of the season—or better yet—the year.