Great post, Dave. Groupthink is a danger that happens across all professions and to everyone at some point in time in their personal life. The on-going challenge is to strike that balance between useful criticism and problem identification and trying to find issues just because it's expected. Groupthink is also often a result of an ingrained organizational culture which unfortunately, transcends any one engineer's ability to break down and fix.
Beth, it is important to have useful criticism. At General Electric we were schooled constantly about this. If you were going to criticize something you had better have an alternative. Quite frankly, the alternative may be argued with, but in the process we typically came up with a synthesis that moved things forward. Don't be afraid to criticize, but don't just complain, either.
If engineers and designers can set aside attachment and ego, groupthink is less likely.
It's hard to be the one who calls out any issue that needs to be addressed in a project. Unfortunately, pointing out flaws in the process is often seen as criticism. Timing is very important too. Too early or too late in the process can derail good momentum.
@naperlou: At times, it may be necessary to criticize a plan even when you don't have an alternative worked out. If there are problems with the plan, they need to be brought up, so that they can be addressed. You're absolutely right, though, that it needs to be in a constructive spirit, rather than a spirit of finding fault. (For one thing, if others perceive that you're simply trying to find fault, they will be less likely to listen to your concerns).
Thanks, Dave, for writing this article. I haven't seen Whyte's name in ages. He wrote The Organization Man, a key social science text discussing in detail what groupthink was doing to 1950s companies and their employees. I think one of the toughest aspects to groupthink, for engineers and everyone else, is figuring out the line between it and teamwork.
Lou that's sound practice, and I agree. You were GE – so you know Zafirowski – and what an example he set. (MikeZ, if you're reading this, the connation is NOT positive). Back to the point; we had an un-written rule when I was at Motorola – If you're going to criticize a concept, you must offer an improvement alternative; not just another Jerk-input. (MikeZ, you would have benefited following this idea. Maybe even kept you out of bankruptcy a few times)
Complain all you want, missing unreasonable deadlines on projects will lead to your exit from the company. This is happening to a colleague of mine. He is stressing himself out over meeting the dates. He has even said it is impossible. The response, "we have to get it done." (We as in him only.) He confided in me that he is worried, his job is a stake.
Is groupthink more like groupblame? Swaying a manager to reality is just a way to buy more time, pass the blame onto time so to speak. Perhaps complaining is a good way to cover the bases. Squeaky wheel getting the grease, to add another cliche.
What can someone like my friend do when they complain about unreachable milestones and still are responsible?
@JamesCAnder: Managers who set unachievable deadlines and then blame engineers for failing to achieve them are setting themselves up for failure.
Suppose the company fires your friend and hire someone else. His replacement is unlikely to have any more success in meeting the deadlines. Ultimately, the company will fail to achieve its goals. They can blame whoever they want, but at the end of the day, they will be the losers.
I'm not suggesting that your friend should complain; I'm suggesting that he should tell the truth. This is his professional responsibility. Whether or not his managers want to listen to him is outside of his control.
The law of gravity applies, whether you choose to acknowledge it or not. Denying reality does not change the facts. But we, as individuals, can choose whether to participate in the denial of reality.
Your friend should be looking for another job, if he isn't already. Based on your description of its management style, the company he works for is clearly not headed for success.
Sounds very familiar a manager setting unrealistic deadlines just so the project schedule would fit into some kind of mold. I always hated when a manager would ask my completion date then put whatever date he felt would fit well in the project's schedule. I've seen this happen not only to me but other engineers more times than I can count. Then for some strange reason the manager would be surprised when the project was behind schedule. In fact, I worked a place this was so bad that "behind schedule and over budget" was a common phase. I thought "on schedule and within budget" was a unicorn project.
Beth, I know what you mean about the ingrained thinking.
I'm generally the one who don't have a problem going against the group's opinion if I think it is wrong. However, there are times when like Beth stated it is ingrained and my feedback is not worth mentioning, but not often. Lol.
One time a program manager asked me "how is the project going"? I politely stated it wasn't going well, the new people he put on the project had taken it way off track and no progress was being made. Long story short, He let me know that I was the only person on the project that felt that way. I told him I was the only person who said anything.
I learned over the years to NEVER repeat someone else's opinion about something like this, as they always deny saying it making you look like the liar. So when he asked who I said he/she must speak for themselves. Not 30 days later, the group was called into his office saying the "project isn't going well no progress was being made". I said "OH NO!! I can't believe it". It's funny the project engineer came to me in private and said "I should have said something about how bad the project was going when he asked me instead of saying everything was going good". I was thinking yes you should have but rest assures I will not speak for you or anyone else. It a shame there are so many people that are afraid to speak the truth. The truth may hurt but I rather it hurt and make things better than say nothing and make them worst.
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