The Cure for Groupthink: Gameology

When playing strategic war games, I always tell clients: You’re fighting generations of history.

What do I mean by this? In my last post, we explored groupthink’s threat toward the functionality, effectiveness and survival of businesses. We identified what groupthink means and what signs point to it. Illusions of invulnerability that lead to undue optimism and risk taking. It’s the existence of beliefs blinding us to poor actions and their consequences. It’s rationalizing — basically a sophisticated way to say excuse-making — that prevents group members from reconsidering beliefs that might be harmful. And so on.

Groupthink is much the same as a comfort zone. As human beings, it can feel easier to go with the grain, rather than against it. To value consensus over conflict, even when conflict is healthy and productive. And to agree with voices of authority, even when the evidence suggests those voices are wrong. These zap our competitiveness and make us fall behind.

But once you’ve identified you’re there, how do you remove yourself, or move forward in an effective manner? Groupthink can be powerful, but it is effectively countered by gameology.

I have guided countless clients through war games. The work they require can be underestimated for their capability to create stronger, happier teams. Teams that don’t succumb to those dreaded “things that make us human,” but rather, accentuate and harness the best qualities in everyone.

War games sharpen a company’s strategic capabilities precisely because they are a holistic enterprise. They force participants to look at a whole plan for its entirety, not just its parts. They challenge misguided internal assumptions that can cripple a company and identify competitive vulnerabilities.

A helpful tool to make these concepts clearer is a Johari window. To know anything, particularly our competition, we have to know ourselves. Conceived by psychologists Joseph Luft and Harrington Ingham in the 1950s, picture a square split into four parts called quadrants. From left to right:

  • Quadrant 1 represents things you know about yourself, and that others know about you. It is called an open area.
  • Quadrant 2 represents things about you that you aren’t aware of but are known by others. This is a blind area — much the same way we describe our “blind spots” in everyday language.
  • Quadrant 3 represents things you know about yourself, but that others don’t know about you — the hidden area.
  • Quadrant 4 represents things that are unknown to both you and others — the unknown area.

This is an instructive place to start, and it lays the ground for naming our players.

We’re Team A: the company. Team B is our competition — depending on who we are, government, the media or another company. Between those two is the judge — the customer or decision-makers about us, what we’re providing or selling.

The players on our team could be people who have worked for our competitors. They should include people we need in various roles, like performing research, connecting with customers and targets, and so on.

We want to understand what participants on our team know about the competition. How did they learn what they know? How do they feel about the subject matter? Based on any new information we learn in our research, we want minds open to change on our team, along with a leadership of the team that allows a free and open exchange of information. If the boss has made up his or her mind, it’s best not to run a game. (If they’re a narcissist, don’t even bother.) Politically correct people, egomaniacs or thin-skinned executives too easily sink the ship.

To bring it full circle, teams should ask themselves:

  • What is possible to do to meet the objective?
  • What are our blind spots regarding competitors?
  • How will competitors respond to war games? Can we outsmart them?

That last one requires us to have the most open mind about ourselves. It’s best to assume the competition is doing the same work to try and figure us out as a whole, to exploit our blind areas and use them against us to respond to our war games.

Human beings are naturally ruled by our emotions, and so it can be difficult ground to tread. Those emotions may not even come from deliberately bad places, just natural ones. People are unwilling to hear bad news, and they’re blinded by their histories or the past, allowing both to cripple them until it is too late to respond to the competition. Blockbuster is one example that comes to mind.

Stay tuned for my next series on media engagement. Keep fighting until next time.

CEO and co-founder of Caissa Public Strategy. Business strategist, best-selling author, attorney and public speaker.

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