The War on Groupthink

If we want to keep our corporate cultures from breaking, we’re going to have to find new ways to keep them together.

According to Senator Pat Roberts of the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee, pre-war intelligence failures at the CIA came from a “broken corporate culture and poor management, and cannot be solved by simply adding funding and also personnel.” Not too long ago we heard about NASA’s “broken safety culture”, and similar symptoms of groupthink have been credited as contributing to the mistakes of Enron, the Vietnam War and the Bay of Pigs.groupthink3

If adding more money and people isn’t the answer, then we have to focus instead on changing the hardest things of all — the way we think, the way we communicate with one another, and the way we collectively make decisions. PowerPoint sits at the intersection of all of these activities, reflecting both our current problems and a pathway for solutions.

A figure looming large over the recent Senate report on the CIA is Sherman Kent, who retired in 1967 but was “probably the most colorful and best-known individual in the world of intelligence analysis”. After reading a bit about Kent’s ideas about thinking, communication and group decision-making at the CIA, it is striking how much they contrast with our broader culture’s current assumptions about presentations, and by extension, PowerPoint.

Kent described a healthy corporate culture as a smart, flexible and fluid community of people coming to the best possible decision by a process of challenging assumptions and measuring probabilities, with their success measured in terms of results. That’s what any organization should expect.

But when we take a look at our ideas about “presentations” and PowerPoint, we couldn’t see a reality farther from Kent’s truth. Instead we see a certain, inflexible collection of individuals, presenting and informing other people about their pre-determined truths, with their success measured in terms of opinions, not metrics.

Part of this comes from the way we think about the concept of a “presentation” — it’s something we do after we’re already “certain” about something, and we’re ready to “deliver” it to other people. It implies that I will show you something I know to be true — there’s no need for your input really, because I’ve already worked things out in advance. The same with the concept of “informing” — I have the information that I am going to give to you and there’s no need for you to engage me, but thanks for the offer. An “audience”, after all, is there to do what the root of the word means — to listen, maybe applaud, and that’s it. These assumptions imply “certainty” on the part of the presenter, and “passivity” on the part of the audience.

It’s fine to assume these things, as long as we’re aware that our default mode of presenting and informing also means that there is little room for thinking, challenging, dialogue and debate — a fertile breeding ground for groupthink. The way we use PowerPoint only adds fertilizer to this stagnant pool, because a slide filled with bulleted text only increases the illusion of certainty for presenters and the feeling of passivity for audiences.

Kent recognized “that analytic or cognitive bias was so ingrained in mental processes for tackling complex and fluid issues that it required a continuous, deliberate struggle to minimize.” There are many ways we can easily flip our PowerPoint approach so it helps us, not hurts us, and becomes an effective weapon against cognitive bias and groupthink. Here’s one tactic:

Tip: Use PowerPoint before you’re certain you have the final answers, not after. Let’s say your team is trying to come up with the best solution to a problem. A majority of the group is already convinced of a particular answer, but you know there are at least 4 competing and conflicting alternatives and you want to make sure your team doesn’t fall victim to groupthink. So you call a 1-hour meeting to discuss the issues and make a decision. You ask someone in the majority opinion to email you a single PowerPoint slide that contains a word, phrase or picture that represents the idea. Then you ask 4 other people with dissenting views to also email you a single slide each. Before the meeting, you insert the 5 slides into a single PowerPoint, and set the timing on each slide to transition to the next after 5 minutes. When you start the meeting, explain to the group that each idea will get an equal 5-minute airing, and after all 5 ideas get their equal time, you will have a 30-minute discussion to determine the best decision. Show the slide with the prevailing idea, and ask someone who opposes the idea to stand up and defend it. When the slide transitions automatically to the next slide after 5 minutes, that person sits down and you ask someone from the majority opinion to stand up to defend the next slide with the conflicting idea. That person sits down after the slide transitions, and someone stands up for the next. After the 5 slides and 25 minutes are finished, return to Slide Sorter view so you see the 5 slides with the 5 ideas. Now facilitate a discussion with the group that will lead to a decision by the end of the meeting. Click on a particular slide to view it when you’re talking about the idea. Use a whiteboard to record discussion points, type them directly onto the slide, or create some new slides. At the end of the meeting, when you decide on the best idea, you at least will know that conflicting ideas had an equal hearing and viewing, and that you were able to make a much more informed and collaborative decision than you probably would have, without PowerPoint.

With a set of tactics like these, you can build up quite a formidable arsenal to ensure that your own corporate culture doesn’t break in the ongoing war against groupthink.

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3 Responses to “The War on Groupthink”

  1. soulsoup says:


    The War on Groupthink from Beyond Bullets If we want to keep our corporate cultures from breaking, we’re going to have to find new ways to keep them together. It’s fine to assume these things, as long as we’re aware that our default mode of presenting …

  2. David Gilmour says:

    Re NASA; the Columbia Accident Report ( comments on the way the Board of Inquiry saw PowerPoint being used.
    “At many points during its investigation, the Board was surprised to receive similar presentation slides from NASA officials in place of technical reports. The Board views the endemic use of PowerPoint briefing slides instead of technical papers as an illustration of the problematic methods of technical communication
    at NASA.”
    The analysis by Dr. Edward Tufte of the slide from the Debris Assessment Team briefing (Report P191) is essential reading for anyone interested in the way PowerPoint is used to communicate in an engineering environment.

  3. Jokes says:

    The CIA had an opening for an assassin. After all of the background checks, interviews, and testing were done there were three finalists – two men and one woman. For the final test, the CIA agents took one of the men to a large metal door and handed him a gun.

    “We must know that you will follow your instructions, no matter what the circumstances. Inside this room you will find your wife sitting in a chair. You have to kill her.” The first man said. “You cant be serious. I could never shoot my wife!”The agent replies, “Then you?re not the right man for this job.”

    The second man was given the same instructions. He took the gun and went into the room. All was quiet for about five minutes. Then the agent came out with tears in his eyes. “I tried, but I cant kill my wife.” The agent replies, “You dont have what it takes. Take your wife and go home.”

    Finally, it was the womans turn. Only she was told to kill her husband. She took the gun and went into the room. Shots were heard, one shot after another. They heard screaming, crashing, banging on the walls. After a few minutes, all was quiet. The door opened slowly and there stood the woman. She wiped the sweat from her brow and said, “You guys didnt tell me the gun was loaded with blanks. So I had to beat him to death with the chair.”

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