You have the strategy team at the table to discuss the latest important decision the company must make: What markets will you target? What investment is too good to pass up? Which new executives will you try to bring aboard?

With so many smart people in one room, the strategy will be perfect, right?

Not necessarily, according to legal scholar and former White House official Cass Sunstein’s book “Wiser: Getting Beyond Group Think to Make Groups Smarter.” I recently finished reading this book, which challenges the notion that planning in groups is the best way to come to the right decision or to develop the right strategy.

Groups Often Conform

Sunstein highlights a basic problem with groups: they tend to move toward “uniformity and censorship.” He supports this position with a number of cited studies and some great historical and personal anecdotes about very bad decisions being made by a room full of very smart people. Sunstein describes a variety of issues affecting these group decisions, including:

  • Planning fallacy – People think tasks can be completed much faster than is actually possible.
  • Egocentric bias – People think that if you like something, everyone else does as well.
  • Self-censorship – A person often doesn’t speak his or her mind if it goes against what the majority of the group thinks.

Sunstein argues that people often defer to the group even if they don’t agree, and even the group’s expert on a topic may stay silent and let a bad decision be made. He gave a poignant example of this: when President Kennedy signed off on the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba. Even though many experts on his national security team had serious doubts about the plan, no one expressed those concerns. The experts didn’t speak up because they didn’t want to be seen as outsiders, especially when much of the group was coming up with bold and optimistic ideas. It is not far-fetched to see how this same mentality can come into play in the corporate world.

How to Make Your Group Wiser

Sunstein offers solutions about how to make the group wiser. Some simple tactics he recommends are:

  • Group leaders should “shut up” and let others talk first. In fact, don’t even let others know your position until the rest of the group has shared their thoughts. Sunstein argues that groups will often completely change their positions to fall in line with their leaders.
  • Embrace devil’s advocates. It is often hard to put up with that person at the table who challenges every idea or plan the group comes up with, but they play an important role in keeping the group grounded.
  • Make sure you include “anxious” people on your team. Sunstein states that many teams are filled with very optimistic folks, who when confronted with a problem, have a “we’ll just figure it out” mentality. Anxious people, who constantly worry and check on the status of a project, are the folks who spot problems early on and make sure a project is done by deadline.
  • Adopt “red teams.” These people are specifically designed to identify vulnerabilities in existing practices or upcoming decisions.

Outsourced Devil’s Advocate

While reading the book, I was reminded of two recent requests I received from clients asking us to do a routine background investigation on potential partners. Both times, we were confronted with groups who had already made up their minds that these potential partners were right for them. In both cases, we were able to help them overcome their group decision and see that there was a lot more to the story.

The first client explained how everyone on the investment team was excited about the potential partners and went into detail about their very compelling backgrounds, which seemed to exemplify the American Dream. Through our research, we uncovered serious financial problems with the potential partners and an important allegation in a lawsuit, suggesting that they might not be as perfect as the investment group thought they were.

The other client was a group of potential investors who found a partner to whom they were considering giving a large sum of money to manage. The client explained how the potential partner had the personal and academic pedigree that suggested he had the brains to make them lots of money, as well as the assets to demonstrate he had been successful in the past. We quickly helped bring the group back to earth when the Ivy League schools the potential partner claimed to have degrees from said they’d never heard of him. Although he used an address in an expensive zip code on his business card, we found that he actually lived with his mother in a modest home.

Continue to Challenge Groups

Although I greatly enjoyed Sunstein’s book, I would be demonstrating “egocentric bias” if I recommended it. However, if you’re looking for a new way to challenge how your team makes decisions and to develop a more thoughtful approach, you should check it out. Personally, I still believe there is great value in making decisions as a group and bouncing ideas off one’s colleagues, but I now go into meetings with a newfound respect for the devil’s advocates in the room. I now see my role with clients as putting aside the excitement of the deal and any preconceived notions they may have and acting as their “red team.”

background investigation