How to cultivate critical thinking in your team

How to cultivate critical thinking in your team

Some time ago I was at a meeting with a great team of doctors and managers. We wanted to solve a particular difficult problem. The issue was discussed at length and we decided to invest time and money to improve the situation. Months later our group’s solution turned out to be a failure. We looked at each other in disbelief and asked: Why didn’t we see this coming? Did we really make this poor decision?

There are many advantages to working in a group or team, but there are also risks. When we’re in a group we often tend to avoid conflict and follow the leading opinion. This ‘groupthink’ phenomenon has lead to many historic disasters such as  the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger and even the Vietnam War. Groupthink stops critical thinking and may lead to an unhealthy decision-making process. It can happen everywhere, including social networks such as Facebook and Twitter where group loyalty or group pressure may prevent airing of alternative ideas.

Last week I was watching World War Z. In this movie Brad Pitt fights the latest pandemic: a zombie apocalypse. Ten days before the pandemic is in full swing an intelligence report mentions the emergence of zombies. “Zombies? You’ve got to be kidding me,” was the response. The report was dismissed. Except… in Israel, where the intelligence service followed the ‘tenth man rule’: when nine people agree, one person – the tenth – has to prove them wrong. In the movie this person convinced the Israeli intelligence service to prepare for a zombie war – and Brad Pitt of course finds a way to save the world.

I’m not sure if the tenth man rule is real or not, but in World War Z Israel implemented this decision-making model because the Jews had been caught out too many times in history, for example during the Second World War and the Yom Kippur war. The signs on the wall were ignored by decision makers, and Israel was determined not to let this happen again. Read more in this excellent post: What World War Z Can Teach You About Critical Thinking.

There are many other ways to make better group decisions, such as looking at the risks of each decision or wearing different thinking hats. A good chair encourages critical thinking. Researchers have suggested ways to avoid groupthink. Here are 7 useful tips from psychologist Irvin Janis (borrowed from this Wikipedia article):

  1. Leaders should assign each member the role of ‘critical evaluator’. This allows each member to freely air objections and doubts.
  2. Leaders should not express an opinion when assigning a task to a group.
  3. Leaders should absent themselves from many of the group meetings to avoid excessively influencing the outcome.
  4. The organisation should set up several independent groups, working on the same problem.
  5. All effective alternatives should be examined.
  6. Each member should discuss the group’s ideas with trusted people outside of the group.
  7. The group should invite outside experts into meetings. Group members should be allowed to discuss with and question the outside experts.
  8. At least one group member should be assigned the role of Devil’s advocate. This should be a different person for each meeting.

How does your team encourage critical thinking?

3 thoughts on “How to cultivate critical thinking in your team

  1. Edwin, you might be interested in this New Yorker article on Brainstorming, which also points out the need for a critical voice: http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2012/01/30/120130fa_fact_lehrer?currentPage=all. It also covers research showing that familiarity (though not over-familiarity) and space for social interaction help.
    And this article takes issue with the article’s title, and says how brainstorming can be done well with experienced facilitators: http://bobsutton.typepad.com/my_weblog/2012/01/why-the-new-yorkers-claim-that-brainstorming-doesnt-work-is-an-overstatement-and-possibly-wrong.html.

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