Fighting Groupthink: How To Stop Conformity From Paralyzing Your Risk Management

“Over time, we learn to associate these two ideas: on the one hand, being in a crowd, and on the other, relinquishing responsibility. Crowd. Lack of responsibility. Crowd. Someone else will take care of this. Make the connection enough times, and eventually the mere thought of a group of people is enough to trigger passivity.”

Situations Matter – Sam Sommers


The project meeting has been moving along well and you move on to the next item on your agenda.

“Does any one have any risks they want to identify?”

Is the silence in the room or static on the line all that you hear?

You know that your project has more issues that you can throw a stick at, but the silence stretches out…

Don’t worry – it’s not you.
It’s not the bridge.
It’s not the question.
The silence may have something to do with the pressure that conformity puts on us when we are in group.

People are on the call listening, thinking that someone else will speak up about the tiny little issue that is threatening to bubble up in a week’s slip.

Someone else will raise a stink about the obstacle that is blocking the team.

Someone else will point out that the emperor has no clothes.

At least that’s what people thought during status reviews of the Challenger spaceshuttle and the planning sessions about the Plan to Liberate Cuba (Bay of Pigs invasion).

Someone else was going to say something. But no one said anything.

If you’re lucky, you’ll have a person on the team that regularly disturbs the groupthink vibe and raises a red flag about critical issues.

If you’re smart: you’ll take conformity into account and try to “reverse engineer” some of its effects. As Sommers’ writes, “Anything you can do to emphasize individual identity has the potential to reduce conformity”.

With that idea in mind:
1) Don’t just ask the group a general question and stop there. Go around the room (if you’re in one place) or go through the names list of folks who dialed in and ask specific questions about their areas of responsibility.

Sometimes people are multi-tasking and have wandered off to their spreadsheet or email or terminal window to do something else.

Sometimes they just need to be encouraged to raise an issue. Their name may pull them out of their waiting to see if someone else will answer.

2. Don’t just use your meeting to uncover risks. It may be more effective to talk to some of your SMEs one on one about what they view as a potential risk.

Don’t be afraid of silence on the bridge.  Remember that it’s easier to be uncomfortable for a few minutes then deal with an issue that everyone ‘knew’ was a problem, but never spoke up.

Do you have any ideas on how to encourage folks to speak up during critical calls? Leave a comment or send me a tweet, my id is jgodfrey.

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