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The Group Looks At Minimal Alternatives

By Joseph Nyanchama

A story is told how the elevator at the El Cortez hotel in San Diego could not handle the traffic and experts, engineers and architects were called in to explore possibilities with a view of coming up with the solution. After critical analysis, the expert engineers concluded that they could put another elevator in the basement. The plans were drawn up. As the architect and the engineers were discussing it, the cleaner who was cleaning the room where they were heard them agonizing over the plan and said, “Do you know what I would do if I were you?”

The architect asked, “What?” “I would build the elevator on the outside”, he replied. The architect and the engineer just looked at each other. They built the elevator on the outside and this became the first time in the history of architecture that an elevator was built outside a building. How many times as a CEO or board or management have you ignored your internal staff in seeking opinions from them? Instead you seek solutions from outsiders who you think are experts and end up paying millions of shillings with little to show. Had El Cortez Hotel management sought opinions from its own staff, it should have noted that the solution it was seeking was in its own backyard.

You can see that from the case of El Cortez Hotel, even though top engineers gathered as a group to look
for a solution, they never managed, not because they were not intelligent, it is because they suffered from the challenge of ‘group-think’. According to Charles Handy, group-think occurs when too high a price is laced on the harmony and morale of the group,so that group consensus overrides the conscience of each member. Concurrence-seeking drives out the realistic appraisal of alternatives. No bickering or conflict is allowed and thus even the cleverest, highest-minded and well intentioned of people can get into blind spot.

Remember that it is not possible to see the picture if you are in the frame. I hope you remember how President John F. Kennedy and a group of close advisors had blundered into the Bay of Pigs invasion. “How could we have been so stupid?” asked President John F. Kennedy.In my own view, stupidity was certainly not the explanation.The group who made the decision was one of the greatest collections of intellectual talent in the history of the American government. One may ask, why then the blunder when the president had the greatest intelligent thinkers as close advisors?

The answer may lie from the experiment done on bees and flies by Gordon Sin. Gordon Sin placed in a bottle half a dozen bees and the same number of flies and lay the bottle down horizontally, with its base to the window. He found out that the bees persisted till they died of exhaustion or hunger in their endeavor to discover an issue through the glass.

But the flies, in less than two minutes, sailed forth through the neck on the opposite side of the glass. He noted that it is the bees’ very intelligence as a group that was their undoing. They evidently imagined that the issue from every prison must be there where the light shines clearest and they acted in accordance and persisted in too logical action. Whereas the flies, careless of logic, disregarding the call of the light, individually fluttered wildly hither and thither and found their exit out and survived.

Political organizations or business organizations need to watch out otherwise they will become victims of
‘group-think’. They may get into the habit of stereotyping their enemies or other people and are likely not to notice discordant evidence. Usually they may be quick to find rationalizations to explain away evidence that does not fit their policies. Have you not heard leaders from different regions of the country declaring publicly their stand on a matter and divergent views are carefully screened out in people’s minds?

They label the person of different opinion anti-the group or region and you hear them say, “We know who the owner of the dog is”. They refer the person with different ideas as the dog. Further, you will hear them say, “Our leader needs all the support we can give him”. The doctrine of collectively responsibility
is invoked to stifle dissent outside the group. The consequence of this to the group members is that they feel self-censored and they are careful not to discuss their feelings or their doubts outside the group
in order not to disturb the group cosines.

In that case, they become victims of ‘group-think’ and set themselves up as bodyguards to the decision and always believe that unanimity is important if the organization has to progress. This type of group becomes overoptimistic and can take extraordinary risks without realizing the dangers mainly because there is no discordant warning voice. Such a group develops a tendency to be blind to the moral or ethical implications of a policy. “How could so many good men be wicked?” This is the feeling you
may hear being expressed by the public.

This is because the group ignored well intentioned people whom they labeled antiestablishment at the time they were warning on the danger of the policy. The result of group think therefore is that the group looks at too few alternatives, is incentive to the risks in its favorite strategy, finds it hard to rethink a strategy that is failing and becomes very selective in the sort of facts it sees and asks for. Group-think is unfortunately most rife at the top and center of organizations where the need for ‘keeping things close’
seems more important.

The solution to enable organizations not to become victims of group-think is for them to actively encourage self-criticism, the search for more alternatives, the introduction of outside ideas and evaluation wherever possible and a positive response to conflicting evidence. One way for example of avoiding group-think in the boardroom is the growing use of non-executive director or independent directors, for small groups like board of directors can get too cohesive to be effective.

President J.F. Kennedy learnt his lesson. The missile crisis was handled differently with a more diffuse group, more outside ideas, more sensitivity to conflicting data. If Kennedy did this, you can as well. Remember if thinking is the same across organizations or country, then there is no thinking. In other words, if you and your boss reason the same, one of you is redundant.


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