April 25, 2009

Groups Can Help or Hurt the Decision Process…Here’s how

Generally, IT governance is based on the assumption that by vetting decisions in groups or boards—such as an Enterprise Architecture Board or Investment Review Board--we get better decisions. I for one have been an outspoken proponent for this and still am.

However, I read with great interest in the Wall Street Journal, April 25-26, an article entitled “How Group Decision End Up Wrong-Footed.”

In this article, an organizational psychologist at Stanford University, Robert Sutton states: “The best groups will be better than their best individual members”—okay, that’s right in line with our IT governance model, but then goes on to say…

and the worst groups will be worse than the worst individual.”—oh uh, that’s not good…here the IT governance model seems to backfire, when the group is dysfunctional!

Here’s the explanation:

“Committees and other groups tend either to follow the leader in a rush of conformity [here’s the herd mentality taking over] or to polarize into warring groups [here’s where the members break into oppositional stovepipes jockeying for position and turf].”

In these all too common dysfunctional group scenarios, the group does not work the way it is intended to—in which members constructively offer opinions, suggestions, explanations and discuss issues and proposals from various points of view to get a better analysis than any single person in the group could on their own.

Instead, “all too often committees don’t work well at all—resulting in a relentless short-term outlook, an inability to stick to strategic plans, a slapdash pursuit of the latest fad and a tendency to blame mistakes on somebody else.”

So how do we develop groups that work effectively?

According to Richard Larrick a psychologist at Duke University, “For committees and other boards to work well, they must be made up of people with differing perspectives and experience who are unafraid to speak their minds…they must also select and process information effectively and seek to learn from their mistakes.”

In this model, people in a group can effectively balance and complement each other, and synergistically work together to make better IT decisions for the organization.

Here are some suggestions offered by the article for effective groups:

The first is to break the group into “pro” and “con” sub-groups that can develop arguments for each side of the argument. I call this the debate team model and this offsets the tendency of groups to just follow the “leader” (loudest, pushiest, most politically savvy…) member in the room, creating the herd mentality, where anybody who disagrees is branded the naysayer or obstacles to progress. To get a good decision, we need to foster a solid debate and that occurs in an environment where people feel free to explore alternate point of view and speak their minds respectfully and constructively with non-attribution and without retaliation.

The second suggestion is to ask how and why questions to “expose any weak points in the advise.” This idea was a little surprising for me to read, since I had prior learned in leadership training that it is impolite and possibly even antagonistic to ask why and that this interrogative should be avoided, practically at all costs.

In prior blogs, I have written how enterprise architecture provides the insight for decision-making and It governance provides the oversight. So I read with interest once more, that oversight has a dual meaning: “the word can mean either scrutiny or omission.” And again it clicked…when the governance board works effectively; it “scrutinizes” investments so that the organization invests wisely. However, when the group is dysfunctional the result is “omissions” of facts, analysis, and healthy vetting and decision-making. That is why we need to make our IT governance boards safe for people to really discuss and work out issues.


1 comment:

Aaron K. said...


Very insightful. Based on my leadership training, I would also add that most groups are successfully driven by good leaders that communicate clear organizational goals as well.

In other words, when a leader doesn't keep his/her team focused on the big picture of the group/company, people can play better politics and cannibalize progress.

This may begin to venture down the philosophical views of leadership, but a clear example is patriotism. During WWII, patriotism was high because we had a large outside threat that kept everyone focused and working together. When you diminish that threat, people start to selfishly take on new priorities and do what's best for them.

The same goes for group decision making. A weak leader will not keep his/her team focused, thus creating an environment that will threaten progress. Regardless of what style of group decision making you build, it is critical to maintain a leadership role and communicate focus as a whole. Without the backbone of strong leadership, I have seen many group decision making teams fail to realize thier whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Of course there’s a fine balance between leadership and dictatorship, which is another discussion.