Group Obedience

Have you ever stopped yourself from speaking up at a meeting because you felt that the idea or suggestion would not be appreciated or ridiculed? Groupthink is a phenomenon where the desire for group cohesiveness and a quick decision cloud the judgment of the people in the group. The decision taken is often less than ideal. Consequently, identifying warning signs of groupthink is vital. 

images (1)Bay of Pigs was a plan that many knew in advance would fail. Yet the American President J.F. Kennedy went ahead with the plans to try to invade Cuba despite the fact that several of the general knew that the plan would backfire.

Another example is the Challenger explosion, which was a disaster that occurred in 1986 where seven people died. Engineers of the space shuttle knew about some faulty parts months before takeoff, yet the signs were ignored to avoid negative press and the shuttle was launched. 

imagesFeelings of unanimity and morality within the group lead to the members thinking that everyone agrees. Members of the group may be afraid of controversy and there may be a pressure to conform to the group’s decision. In some cases, there is a pressure to make a quick decision and the group may work with incomplete information. This may result in an idea that is not balanced. Or it may result in a family going to Abilene despite the fact that no one wants to go. ScreenShot2012-01-27at115851AM

The Abilene Paradox was coined by Jerry B. Harvey, and author of “The Abilene Paradox and Other Meditations on Management”. 

There are a number of ways to avoid groupthink such as finding negative points and risks with an idea (see Thinkibility – Positive & Negative). Asking members outside the group to look at the idea is another way to reduce the effects of groupthink. 

Learning how to spot groupthink is vital. Signs of groupthink are a strong leader, high level of group cohesion and pressure from the outside to make a good decision.


Pressure of a moral character is difficult to deal with. For example, the suggestion that an idea is better because it is more moral is challenging and difficult to resist since no one wants to be seen as less moral or immoral. Suggestions such as “We all know right from wrong, and this is right” are emotionally difficult to deal with. 

A company should have a Plan B or a contingency plan to minimise risks related to groupthinkThe emotional consequences of groupthink can leave many of the members feeling disillusioned and dissatisfied. Enthusiasm can fade if you feel that you do not support a decision that has been taken by the group.  

business meeting - woman ceo

Creating a healthy group working environment helps to ensure that the group makes good decisions. Nominal Group Technique focuses on members independently  nominating priority issues, on a scale of, for example, 1 to 5.


nominal grouptechnique

Another method that could be used is the Delphi method. This method helps to structure the communication to ensure that consensus is achieved. Thus these methods try to prevent and minimise the impact of Groupthink.


It is called Delphi because some researchers assumed that the forecasts by the priests of the Delphi oracle basically were compilations of information the visitors from all over the known world brought in themselves.

Basically, it is not the best strategy to strive for consensus, but for dissent.


So encourage disagreement, difference of opinion, argument, dispute, disapproval, objection and protest over constructing consent and majority rule.

See also our earlier posts:



Key Performance (mis) Indicators


Key Performance Indicators are meant to keep an organisation on track. By measuring the performance over time, you are able to look at deviations and to take measures. As Wikipedia defines it: A  key performance indicator (KPI) is a type of performance measurement. An organization may use KPIs to evaluate its success, or to evaluate the success of a particular activity in which it is engaged. Sometimes success is defined in terms of making progress toward strategic goals, but often success is simply the repeated, periodic achievement of some level of operational goal (e.g. zero defects, 10/10 customer satisfaction, etc.).

The concept behind Key Performance Indicators is to build a feedback loop between input and output. Its working principle does not differ from a thermostat, which senses the temperature of a system so that the system’s temperature is maintained near a desired set-point.


In order to get not market driven organisations more efficient the adage “The numbers tell the tale”has become fashion among governments, institutions and not-for-profit companies. There are several metrics or key performance indicators.

However, Key Performance Indicators can also lead to perverse incentives and unintended consequences as a result of employees working to the specific measurements at the expense of the actual quality or value of their work. In the social sciencesunintended consequences (sometimes unanticipated consequences or unforeseen consequences) are outcomes that are not the ones intended by a purposeful action. Perverse incentives are a type of unintended consequence. A perverse incentive is an incentive that has an unintended and undesirable result which is contrary to the interests of the incentive makers.

There are a lot of examples of bad designed Key Performance Indicators. We came across, but not exhaustive:

  • Police officers get a predetermined quota of fines to give out. The unintended effect of this KPI that the police organisation will be focused on easy to obtain files, f.i. traffic fines instead of fighting serious crime;
  • An organisation involved in handling objections has a KPI for the amount of rejected complaints. Imagine how employees will approach complaints. . .
  • It is generally accepted that the progress of students is evaluated by tests. However, student tests assess only a small part of needed knowledge, skills and attitude of students. Also, often the purpose of the test, timely warning of learning difficulties and study delays, dilutes to “a (missed) ticket to the next hurdle”;
  • An agency of child protection is responsible for placing abused or emotional neglected children in foster parents and child care institutions. It is very logic to design a KPI: like the number of placed children. If this performance is coupled to the financing of the agency, it can easily lead  to placing children out of their home, against sound indications that there is no need for or against parents objections;
  • It is complete reasonable to expect higher efficiency and experience of surgeons as a hospital performs at least 30 knee surgery or angioplasty a year. However, such a KPI can lead to more instead of less knee surgery and angioplasty, an example of a perverse effect contrary to what was originally intended (an intended solution makes a problem worse);
  •  The selling of mortgages as an end in itself, even to people who could no pay the interest, led to the bank crisis in 2008. Another example of a negative, unexpected detriment occurring in addition to the desired effect of the policy to motivate sellers to do better their best.
  • To increase the efficiency of university studies universities are judged on the number of successful students per year. It is now tempting to reduce the requirements for passing exams.
  • In order to increase the efficiency of General Practitioners many assurance companies allow for not more than ten minutes consults by patients. This KPI leads to far more referrals to medical specialists because GP’s have not much time to carefully investigate the medical complaints. This is an example of a counterproductive KPI: it is more of an “obstacle” than a help in the achieving of a productive project or an objective;
  • Crews of warships run annual series of nautical and operational exercises. Through a complex multi-factor analysis, a KPI is derived: Operational Employ-ability. Members of Parliaments asked questions when the KPI decreased to 10%, as a warship was actually deployed in a crisis;
  • Notorious are budgets: the setting of expenditure levels for each of an organization’s functions. It expresses strategic plans of business units, organizations, activities or events in measurable terms. However, such budget tends to be exhausted at the end of the year, because organizational units realise that they will be shortened in budget for next year, because last year they needed not the full budget. So, as an example, in many towns you can observe that every five to ten years the same streets and squares are completely overhauled without any need but in order to use the full budget.

Many Key Performance Indicators have unintended effects. They function as rules for behavior. Key performance Indicators are designed to notice need for adjustments of the course of an organisation. However, more often than not, they are invitations to cheat, by employees but equally by companies and institutions,  especially when financial consequences are attached to the KPI.

Whenever designing or encountering a Key Performance Indication, be warned!


unintended consequences

For more examples of perverse incentives, see here. For examples of unintended consequences see here.

To built up your Thinkibility skills, imagine your are the director of a hospice. You have set a thinking task: how to improve the occupancy (KPI) of the hospice. Then check your answers with How Dying Became A Multibillion-Dollar Industry.



Wishful Thinking

Thinking Patterns
Not all thinking pattern are beneficial such as distorted or negative patterns. But what about Wishful thinking? What we believe is true and what we wish were true can be very different. But how do we separate between belief and desires? And can wishful thinking be useful?

A common assumption is that we are constantly evaluating and planning our actions. But we are creatures of habits. And our thinking is characterised by habits. Our thinking takes place in a setting, to deal with new situations and information we rely upon finding patterns and routines. Thinking patterns refers to a certain way of thinking. In some situations, we may be more prone to negative and destructive thinking patterns such as “something good will never happen to me”.  At other times, when we are engaged in problem solving activities we may be prone to engage in correlative thinking, which is mainly driven by intuition.

A problem is that we do not know how or when to use different thinking frameworks. Shifting between different types of thinking pattern is like changing gear in a car. Gears allow us to use different speed range but one gear is not necessarily superior to another. A low gear means more power, which may be useful when we are driving up a hill. Similarly, when one thinking pattern does not help us to solve a problem, it makes sense to change pattern.

If you are focusing your attention on finding risks and dangers with an idea – metaphorically wearing the Black Hat – wishful thinking is regarded as not appropriate. In contrast, when you are looking for positive aspects – metaphorically wearing the Yellow Hat – wishful thinking is welcomed. It may also be welcome when we are invention things and looking for new ideas. Steve Jobs was known for his wishful thinking. The term Reality Distortion Field was used to described his skill to persuade and charm  others to believe and support his ideas. Regardless of  how loud others shouted that it was impossible, it did not stop Steve Jobs. And in many case, he managed to prove that it was possible indeed.

Exploring Wishful Thinking
Sometimes we like to believe things confirming with our wishes so much we ignore evidence that suggest the contrary. In science, different techniques and methods are used to ensure that we can counteract wishful thinking. An experiment should be carried out in a way that separates what the scientist hopes and wishes to be true from what there is good reason to believe to an accurate description of our world.

Whatever we wish to be true, we can always find evidence that confirms that our wish may be true. It is nice to have our wishes confirmed. When we use wishful thinking, we ignore evidence that may run counter to our idea.  This means that our conclusion may be wrong. Wishful thinking sounds like something we all should avoid and it is tempting to believe that you are not vulnerable to it. Or that certain people are less susceptible. But we all need to look for signs of wishful thinking. We need to search for ways to guard ourselves against dismissing evidence that does not support our wishes.

  • Confirmation bias – we favour information that confirms our existing beliefs
  • Expectation bias – we look only for results that support our theory or model.

Einstein did not like the idea of black holes and he refused to accept the possibility of black holes. He disliked the idea so much that even though other scientist used his theory to show that he was wrong, he still refused to consider the possibility of black holes.  He published a faulty paper supporting his position and he never changed his mind!

Are climate deniers notorious wishful thinkers? Skeptical Science is sceptical about global warming scepticism. The site explores if arguments against global warming is based upon scientific results or if it is wishful thinking.

It is easy to draw the conclusion that wishful thinking is of little value. Yet it is how we explore and what we do with our wishes and beliefs. Working backwards from an idea or suggestion is one way to explore the underlying assumptions.Let us use climate change as an example.

  • Climate change will not lead to disaster.There is no climate change. Work backward and look at issues such as the relationship between higher  CO2 and the idea that there is no climate change. How does that work? Check the logic and look at the evidence.
  • There is climate change but we can deal with it. Work backward  and explore how humans, animals and plants how adapted to new circumstances.
  • Climate change will lead to a disaster (reverse wishful thinking).  What is the worst scenario? Work backwards and ask yourself: “How could it happen? Then examine the logic and look at the evidence.

Wishful thinking is an excellent opportunity to search for things that you value. Ask yourself why do you not want to believe that there is a chance of global warming? Are you scared of what might happen? Do you value your life style too much? Do you believe that adaptations to new conditions are beneficial for humans, animals, and plants?

Identifying your thinking pattern and exploring underlying assumptions is important whether you are using logical, lateral, or critical thinking frameworks. It is also important when you are using wishful thinking.

Photo: “Nature Water1” by Danilo Rizzuti

A First-Rate Madness – Book reveiw

How can we use knowledge and understanding about depression to enhance our thinking skills?

Depression is linked to negative views of yourself and the world. Sadness is a normal reaction to life’s struggles and disappointments. But depression is much more than just sadness; some people describe depression as “living in a black hole”. Yet psychiatrist Nassir Ghaemi believes that people suffering from depression may be good candidates for certain positions. He suggests that people suffering from depression often have a realistic view about their place in the world – making them a suitable candidate to lead in a crisis.

Mildly depressed people tend to see the world more clearly – more as it is. In a classic study, people pressed a button and observed whether it turned on a green light. The light was controlled by the researcher. People suffering from mild depressive symptoms realised that they had little control over the light. Non-depressed people believed that they could control the light – a slightly inflated sense of how much control it is possible to have over the world.

In the book, “A First Rate Madness” several case studies are discussed that examine respected political figures who lived with depression and/or mania. Nassir Ghaemi argues that the fact that the leaders suffered from a mental health condition actually enhanced their leadership skills. During times of peace, a leader that is regarded as mentally healthy may do well but they may experience problems during crises. Classifying mental problems is difficult and using historical figures to prove an idea is even more difficult. Yet Nassir Ghaemi’s ideas are interesting when we are discussing thinking related to an active search for risks and dangers with an idea or suggestion.

Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Human salvation lies in the hands of the creatively maladjusted”, but maybe it is possible to use the understanding of the “creatively maladjusted” to improve our thinking skills. Exploring risks and dangers is an attempt to examine negative points as objectively as possible – a kind of role-playing. A “good” thinker is not characterised by superior cognitive abilities or skills. We can set ourselves apart by our tendencies to explore and enquire. We can develop curiosity and be prepared to plunge ourselves into intellectual risks and challenges. We can learn to think critically and logically. Challenge ourselves to think laterally and imaginatively.

The habit of changing the thinking and adapt it to the situation is vital and knowledge and understanding of when to use a thinking framework or technique is vital. So is the habit of constantly reflecting and monitoring the thinking. Are we overly optimistic because there are reports of an economic down turn? This awareness may help us to improve upon risky ideas and solutions. Rather than a quick rejection of ideas, it is more fruitful to explore ways to improve the weak points. Strategies can also be used such as choosing more risky options every Tuesday or every fifth time. Instead of rejecting leads for new business opportunities a higher risk project could be check out but not every time. A flexible approach mixed with awareness of how we tend to think and act in a crisis may help us select the best option and idea.

Black-and-White Background

How does black-and-white background influence our thinking?

Thinking is never neutral. Focusing our attention on different aspect is often more difficult than we imagine. Many “little” things can affect our thinking. A recent study suggests that if we see something on a black-white background it is harder for us to consider grey areas when we are solving moral dilemmas. It appears that our judgement becomes more black-and-white.

Simone Schnall and her colleagues found that when people rated a fictional  moral story their ratings were influenced by the colour of the border. The participants saw the tale next to a black-and-white checkerboard, grey, or yellow-and-blue checkerboard. There was no difference between the grey and coloured checkerboards. Stronger judgement against the man’s behaviour was made when they saw the black-and-white checkerboard.  They same pattern appeared when the participants were asked questions about moral and immoral behaviours or asked to make judgements about fairness. This research, which has not yet undergone peer-review, adds to other interesting finding such as the way holding a hot cup of tea or coffee in one hands influences our perception of a situation,

All this is fascinating; yet the interesting question is how to prevent us from letting the environment influence our thinking. A first step is to develop an awareness of how various aspects in our surroundings may influence later thinking. It is also vital to explore different techniques to help us stay focused on the task. We can take breaks to help us clear our minds when we switch our perception and direct our thinking to other aspects.

Would the result in the study change if the participants had been allowed small breaks between reading the story and answering the questions?. Or is it possible to change the result by informing them that the background may influence their thinking. While we are waiting for new results, we can always test some ideas ourselves. How much can we influence out thinking by thinking about possible factors that may have influenced our thinking. Is it easier to look for risks and dangers when we are looking out of the window and the rain is pouring down?  

Under the Six Hats Thinking framework as designed by Edward de Bono we select a metaphorical thinking Hat as a way of directing the attention to a certain aspect. Switching from wearing one metaphorical hat to another is difficult. Awareness and tricks need to be used to ensure that our thinking under the Blue Hat is not too optimistic if we previously used the Yellow Hat. It is deceptively easy to believe that Blue Hat thinking is neutral. Moreover, it is easy to believe that we are in fact making a “neutral” evaluation of the thinking. However, our thinking is influenced by previous thinking and our feelings. A possible method that can be used is to take a small break when switching from one metaphorical thinking Hat to the next. We can listen to some music, walk around in the room, or mediate for a couple of minutes.

Photo: “Pixel Point” by Salvatore Vuono

World Thinkers’ Ideas – Degrees of Impossibilites

Learning from history is difficult and often the same mistakes are repeated over and over again. And history has repeatedly shown that it is dangerous to say that some things are impossible.

To find a solution to any problem you have to believe that there is an answer. If you have lost your mobile phone in your house, you will search until you find it. If you ask yourself, “Is there a mobile phone in my house?” well, chances are that you will not search for long. The same idea should be used when we are trying to solve a problem, or are looking for a new idea. The perception that there is a solution means that we have to start looking we need to decide techniques where to look and how. In contrast, if we ask ourselves “Is there a solution?”  It is easy to give up an answer the question with “No there is not solution, it is impossible.”

Michio Kaku, theoretical physicist and the author of “Physics of the Impossible”, distinguishes between three different types of impossibilities. A hierarchy of impossibilities. Kaku says that Class 1 impossibilities are things that can be achieved in the near future. Today scientists are working on invisibility cloaks and there is optimism that it will soon be possible to make an object invisible. Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak may be a possibility within this century.

In contrast, Class 2 impossibilities are tricky and it may take thousands or millions of years to achieve. Often these types of   ideas require enormous amounts of energy and they require that we use physics that is little understood. Today, it may be impossible to build a time machine and it may not be possible this millennium. But declaring it as an impossibility is a different matter. Stephen Hawkins tried in the 1990s but he failed to prove that it is impossible to build a time machine.

The third type of impossibility violates known laws of physics. Some ideas can be truly impossible or we may have to discover some new laws of physics to make carry out the idea. Kaku suggests, that building a perpetual motion machine is a Class 3 impossibility.

In a subject such as physics, it may be easy to distinguish between different types of impossibilities, since it is possible to refer to the laws of physics. However, this idea can be applied to thinking about other subjects. Instead of saying that an idea is impossible it may be fruitful to explore why and to what degrees an idea is impossible.Is the idea that we can reduce the number of armed robberies with 99 percent, class 1 or 2 impossibility? How impossible is the idea with global citizens? And can we take all traffic signs away and still reduce the number of traffic accidents?

Photo: “Spheres Balance” by Danilo Rizzuti

Creative Thinking – Left Brain/Rigth Brain Thinking

Many of us associate the search for new ideas with a brainstorming session where ideas are swirling around in the room. Another common picture of is seeing someone lying on the grass, walking on the beach, or watching the view from a mountain top while half-dreaming. In contrast, organising a meeting and deciding the agenda often conjures pictures of control.

On the surface, creative thinking and thinking involved in planning could not be more different. Creative thinking is an active search, while the planning and organising things has a calmer and a more pondering character. Yet appearances can be deceptive. Searching for ways to generate new ideas and alternatives benefit from a structured approach. Deciding the next step or approach to a problem or issues can be more fruitful if a creative approach is used.

Do creative people use their brain in a different way? The debate regarding about what goes on in our left and right brain hemispheres seems like a never-ending story. You will find support for the idea that creative people use the right hemisphere while people who are good at organising things are using their left hemisphere. But we can also find support for the idea that creative and non-creative thinking are not two different things.

The creative right brain myth gained support from Roger Sperry’s split-brain experiments in the 1960s. The problem is that the idea originated from a misinterpretation of his research. A recent study using fMRI suggests that even if a person is given a task that is specialised to the right hemisphere, we use the left hemisphere to help us look for creative solutions. So there is support for the idea that the so-called logical part of our brain plays a role in creative thinking. Well, at least if the creative task is visual or musical.

The idea about a left-brain and right brain thinking can be found in newspapers, films, and in school exercises. Even in ads like the one below.

Mercedes Benz Left Brain/ Right Brain Ads

Left brain text:

“I am the left brain. I am a scientist. A mathematician. I love the familiar. I categorize. I am accurate. Linear. Analytical. Strategic. I am practical. Always in control. A master of words and language. Realistic. I calculate equations and play with numbers. I am order. I am logic. I know exactly who I am.”

Right brain text:

“I am the right brain. I am creativity. A free spirit. I am passion. Yearning. Sensuality. I am the sound of roaring laughter. I am taste. The feeling of sand beneath bare feat. I am movement. Vivid colors. I am the urge to paint on an empty canvas. I am boundless imagination. Art. Poetry. I sense. I feel. I am everything I wanted to be.”

You can also find the logo for the company in the ad.

Photo: “Colorful Brain” by smokedsalmon