Probably the most common way I've seen groupthink manifest itself in organizations is in a series of rules of thumb organizations live by. They can often be detected by listening for statements which start with the phrase"
"...we tried that once..."
The phrase is, by itself, an admission of corporate thinking that establishes conventions which are hard to overcome.
The weird thing about groupthink is -- sometimes it's right, and makes sense. Other times, it can be deadly.
A case in point: during my career I continually looked for opportunities to add products to my existing distribution channels as a way of growing sales. This worked pretty well until I hit a business which had a very narrowly focused channel.
"We've tried introducing complimentary products to the these guys before, but it didn't work." It was a sure sign of groupthink, I decided. It wasn't until I'd tried half a dozen products myself, that I realized the naysayers were absolutely right -- the channel was not serious about complimentary products or new sales. They saw new opportunities as risky. Those new products could put their relationships with their customers at risk on their core products, and they were only interested in sure things. And how many of those are there in business?
So, is groupthink a disease, or rational rule-making?
In my book, it is still a disease -- the reason being that causality becomes separated from the rule itself.
Why do we invoice at the end of the week rather than every day? Because that's the way we do it! There might be good reasons for the decision to behave in this fashion, but unless the employees in the trenches can explain why, it's an example of groupthink.
The disease is probably at it's worst when used as a shortcut for strategic decision-making. For example: "We always overestimate inour strategic plan." or "We shouldn't make acquisitions outside of our industry, because we can't make them work." Those are the groupthink notions that get companies in trouble.
Is groupthink more prevalent in large corporations? You bet! It is in larger and more complex organizations that people are looking for those simple and pat rules to help them make easier and safer decisions. It is also in large organizations where political pressure keeps dissent to a minimum.
Yes, groupthink is one of the big organizational anergies that level the playing field between large and smaller companies. But there are others even more damaging, as I will explore in future posts.