Don’t be blind to a good idea

What do Watergate, Nazi Germany’s decision to invade Russia, and the US Bay of Pigs incursion have in common? Group think, say researchers from a wide range of disciplines. Coined by social psychologist Irving Janis in 1972, group think happens when the desire for harmony in a decision-making group overrides a realistic appraisal of alternatives, which researchers blame for all three misconceived schemes. Symptoms of group think range from self-censorship to collective rationalisation and direct pressure on dissenters. It’s dangerous in leadership teams and fatal to innovation. Even with the best intentions, executives might miss an obvious idea because they simply don’t see it, says Cathy Davidson, author of Now You See It: How the brain science of attention will transform the way we live, work and learn. Inattentional (or perceptual) blindness is a genuine issue, she adds, citing a well-known basketball video exercise designed to show just how easy it is to miss the breathtakingly obvious. “The management takeaway is that since we all see selectively but we don’t all select the same things, we can leverage the different ways we slice and dice the world,” Davidson says. “We can only do this by first accepting that we each have limits. Everything we see means we’re missing something else. It’s that simple. And impossible to see.” Blind spots must be actively addressed in how teams are constructed and assumptions are challenged. “Don’t rule out the cranky person, the intern, or the assistant who usually just takes notes, or the new guy who ‘doesn’t get it’,” Davidson adds. “The puzzled person may be the only one who can see what the pros miss.”

 

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