• Regan Consulting

How to improve group decision making

Updated: Sep 10, 2018

When Alfred P Sloan chaired the board of General Motors back in the 1940s he was renowned for ending meetings early when he felt directors were agreeing with each other too easily. He would ask them to go away, find out what was wrong with what they were proposing, find better solutions then report back a week or so later.

This was a good way to reduce groupthink but, used alone, it didn’t tackle what we now know to be an even more pernicious enemy of sound decision making – cognitive bias.

Well over 200 of these unconscious biases have been identified by psychologists and behavioural economists over the last few years. In this post we look at two of the most pernicious and how to reduce their impact. These are Confirmation Bias and its cousin My-side Bias.

The first happens when people stick rigidly to what they already know without giving much thought to alternatives. They may even reject credible alternative ideas because they don't fit what they believe they already know.

The second, My-side Bias, is when people dismiss other’s ideas simply because they didn’t think of them themselves.

Both these biases are very common in business, politics and everyday life. They’re part of the human condition that most of us remain blissfully unaware of as we add our stitches to life’s rich tapestry. When making big decisions, however, it’s essential to recognise and deal with them. Failure to do so in organisations can, for example:

o encourage groupthink, especially under a dominant leader,

o undermine creativity and innovation by quashing new ideas,

o cost dearly in terms of failed projects and lost opportunities.

A good way to reduce cognitive bias is, firstly, to raise awareness of it so that groups making significant decisions can recognise it when it arises and talk about it openly.

Next, why not try a pre-mortem? As managers we are accustomed to doing post-mortems on failed initiatives and, hopefully, we learn lessons for the future while not dishing out blame.

The advantage of pre-mortems is that they can highlight potential pitfalls before they arise. Alfred P Sloan successfully used the approach by sending his executives away to think. An even better way is to get a different group to critique proposals, especially if they are trained to spot cognitive bias.

One of our clients forms ad hoc multidisciplinary teams of the firm’s rising stars. It’s highly developmental for them, provides solid evidence for succession planning and has saved the firm a fortune by thoroughly thinking through the possible consequences of their weaker decisions.