Get the most out of Groupthink

Posted on February 1, 2012


Common wisdom suggests teamwork is the best way to solve problems and generate new ideas. But anyone who’s served on a committee knows that some groups are more successful than others.

Jonah Lehrer takes a closer look at “Groupthink” in his recent article in The New Yorker. He summarizes excellent scientific research on the subject.

Want to unlock the innovative potential of your team? Research suggests two keys:

1. Debate

Brainstorming has been popular since the 1940s. One of the ground rules is to forbid criticism and negative feedback. In theory, this practice encourages folks to create a high volume of ideas, without fear of ridicule.

But several studies prove that brainstorming simply doesn’t work. For example Charlan Nemeth found that debate and criticism actually stimulate more ideas. Better ones, too.

While perhaps less comfortable than a feel-good, no-wrong-answer brainstorming session, a debate will generate more workable solutions.

2. Diversity

Mixing with new people is a good way to get the creative juices flowing, too.

For example, Brian Uzzi studied decades of Broadway musicals. He discovered a strong correlation between a production’s success and the composition of the team behind it.

Uzzi quantified the density of relationships as Q. A team of people that worked together for years had a high Q, while a team of complete strangers had a low Q. Turns out that teams with a mid-range Q — those with a mix of newcomers and old friends — had the highest success rate.

Lehrer also shares the example of M.I.T.’s Building 20. The facility’s flexibility brought scientists of different disciplines together in unexpected ways. The result? Decades of innovative breakthroughs, many credited to Building 20 as the perfect incubator.

Lehrer speaks to both debate and diversity with this:

“The most creative spaces are those which hurl us together. It is the human friction which makes the sparks.”
So, encourage constructive criticism. Find new people to join your effort. It might just inspire the breakthrough your team’s been working towards.
Any examples of how you use debate or diversity in the nonprofit arena? Please share them in the comments.

Jonah Lehrer, Annals of Ideas, “Groupthink,” The New Yorker, January 30, 2012, p. 22

Posted in: Nonprofit sector