The intersection of technology and leadership

What do you have more of? (Part 2)

My last post triggered a few comments, with having a common goal for a team to rally around somehow also implied groupthink, and thus, Wisdom of the Crowds is a better alternative. I want to clarify a few things:

The point of the original post?
Organisations where I’ve seen them have successful delivery, they also had, what I would consider, true teams. People working together towards a common goal. I’ve also observed many other organisations struggling to deliver, and often, because of multi-project context switching, they had what I would describe as “groups of people” instead of a true team.

Not all teams have groupthink
When I think back to great teams I’ve worked on, the individuals complement each other strengths and, at least in my experience, respond better to unplanned events. Talking about the “taboo” topics is fine because everyone is already comfortable working with each other. I compare this experience to what I see around committees, newly formed teams, or even teams that remain unbalanced (due to a particularly strong member or something) where other participants are too polite, or don’t want to cause a commotion even though it may be the right thing to do.

Understandably, when Felix saw my diagram, he (rightly) feared groupthink. In my experience, I feel it is symptom of poor performing teams, and is more likely to happen with “groups of people” (think of all those traditional project managers who make a decision for the team!). I do acknowledge it can still happen in a high performing team.

I believe the trick to making this work is having a leader in the team that ensures that conflict is handled in a safe environment, not simply quashed, silenced or bullied away as these eventually lead to group think.

Wisdom of the crowds don’t necessarily mean all crowds are wise
When I see many groups of people, I don’t automatically see a lot of wisdom. It takes another step before you can benefit from wisdom of the crowds. Often it means asking the right question, the right amount of diversity, and a lot of independence to actually benefit from it. I see the right question the same as having the right goal shared amongst people. It doesn’t necessarily mean everyone is doing exactly the same thing to get there, it just means that everyone is pointing in the right direction.

Not all crowds are wise

An example: Brainstorming using sticky notes is one way that I’ve worked in that avoids groupthink and tries to harness the wisdom of crowds. In my last team, we used it to come up with different solutions to tackle a key design problem (note the shared goal!) We each wrote ideas down independently on sticky notes before presenting them to each other. We even spent some time investigating and proving out a number of solutions to gather some hard data about the pros and cons. What made it work was that we all understood what it was we were all trying to get to (the shared goal), not necessarily how we get there. I felt that this was an example of a real team, a situation where everyone was comfortable disagreeing with each other, and openly discussing each option. It certainly didn’t feel like a committee or a random collection of people. I can only imagine what the outcome would be if we did though.

Once again, your comments welcome.


  1. The Sloth

    That’s a great clarification. Team as a group of people thinking in one direction as opposed to the group where everybody has different things in mind.

  2. The Sloth

    Just couldn’t resist and pick on a minor discrepancy. If you round up all group thinking illustrations, then you notice that the first one (when eveybody thinks Triangle) will illustrates a team which will miss a target – as the customer had a fancy 3D-Square in mind. In this case the second team (which resulted in a Polygonosaurus) is closer to meeting the expectations – obviously they delivered much more features than it was needed but they basicaly covered what the customer wanted.
    Said that, I see the discrepancy as minor, because both teams may be considered unsucsessful (if, by Martin Fowler, we can define success). The first one delivered crippled product but second one likely went over budget (time and/or money). And it is up to you, the team visionary, decide the faith of both approaches 🙂

  3. Patrick

    Ha. Well I’m glad you understand what the intent of the post was. Re: discrepency (my intent was not to demonstrate the same group in relation to the first set of diagrams, just demonstrate the dangers of different visions). Thanks though.

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