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.
I agree Nadine, and other factors can also be at play. Sales may be making promises they can't keep without asking first, or upper management may have cast an unreasonable vision and those on the lower end may feel too initimidated to speak up.
I think the statement, "Engineers also often have a tendency to believe they can solve any problem with hard work and ingenuity. This can sometimes lead to ever-increasing expenditures of effort toward a difficult task without questioning the value of the task itself" is also very indicative of some situations. There has to be a point where the work warrants the payoff and if not, that part of the project is readjusted or suspended.
Diplomatic approaches help too - how a person's opinion is received often depends on how it is delivered...and the receptivity of those at the listening/decision-making end counts as well.
@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.
I've worked at a company where unreasonable deadlines were set knowing that the team would fail with the idea that they would finish faster with an aggressive target that could not be met than with a realistic one that could be met. I left that company. Basically for silly policies like that. I think giving people a reasonable target with a nice pat on the back will get better results.
@jmiller: That's a good point about managers who insist on unachievably agrressive deadlines with the idea that it will encourage people to work harder. Not only does this eventually drive away engineers who get tired of being constantly pushed on to do the impossible, but it also has a "boy who cried wolf" effect on those who remain: they stop taking deadlines seriously, since they know that even the managers don't take them seriously. Nobody worries too much about blowing a deadline they know wasn't intended to be met in the first place.
I was the Engineering Manager at this one place and the VP would consistently demand project dates that he knew were unrealistic. I'd tell him it couldn't happen, I would show him Gant charts on why it wouldn't happen and then he'd have me write up a schedule that would produce his target date. My Engineers would do their best to reach each project milestone and each week we would have to explain why we weren't making the deadlines which were really arbitrary.
I suppose the VP felt that he had to flog the horse or else it wouldn't move, but I would have preferred to have him work with Engineering and realize that horses can't fly.
Being in that same situation I saw good engineer after good engineer follow each other right out the door. It's too bad that this has become the way that some people think they should manage. Hopefully, those reading this magazine will think and do differently when they are give n the opportunity.
Some companies have stretch goals that are the cornerstone of their business model. I worked at a company that was similar to what you described. My company would give you a few goals at the beginning of the year. Some of the goals were stretch goals that you were not expected to meet and some were not. The problem was that you did not know which goals were stretch goals, so you had to guess which ones were worth heavy pursuing.
Tim--I also worked for a company that put forth stretch goals and realistic goals and it was always hard to distinguish. Sometimes marketing (of all people) had a better view of what the desired result was. I always made it a point to request to accompany the marketing/sales folks several times a year when they made customer visits or presentations. It kept everybody grounded and gave engineering some leads on what the enduser really wanted.
I love this idea. To go a step further I used to request that sales/marketing put together projections regarding what the end result would produce. Unfortunately, no one ever held anyone accountable for those projections. But the thought was a good idea. I figured if it was such a big deal to have that solution by a certain time. It would have to result in additional sales that would have to be met.
Dave, you are 100% "Spot-On" in your response @JamesCAnder. However, before the company truly fails, there will be a prolonged period of uncertainty and blame. Think about Stephen Covey's "7 Habits of Highly Effective People", in the chapter entitled "Take time out to Sharpen the Saw" He gives the example of a manager who drives every person and every machine at 110%, increasing company profits significantly, and is promoted. When his replacement comes on to fill his vacancy, he finds the place in a shambles. Disgruntled employees, broken-down equipment, etc., so immediately calls for a period of retooling; which costs the company Millions. He then gets fired for being un-productive. Meanwhile the original manager has been promoted to his level of incompetence. The cycle is so typical and so easily recognized by those in the trenches who have lived it over and over again. I pray DAILY that Corporate America will WAKE up and stop the behavior --- the ultimate END is unavoidable. But many inept and greedy managers will profit greatly before it happens.
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.
I agree, Beth -- groupthink has to do with the organization's culture and whether it is emotionally safe to tell the truth. I remember IBM's study on creativity with the company. Those doing the study found a correlation between those who were creative and those who made mistakes. The result is that IBM decided it needed to encourage people to make mistakes. What they really meant was they needed to reduce the pressure on caution.
When troubleshooting, it is necessary to make a lot of mistakes. There are many times that trial and error is all that you have. Some of the smartest people that I know learned from past mistakes to make new designs better.
Great article, Dave. I used to know a high-level executive who often said "I like positive people." I suppose that's true of all of us, but in his case, he really meant, "Dont disagree with me." Not surpisingly, his meetings were always filled with positive comments, even when he was clearly wrong.
I think that was a smart person. Of course, it takes a lot as a manager to allow people to make mistakes. they can be costly. They will delay the end result. But you are right because they can be turned into a positive.
I think there's a lot to be said for creating a healthy environment that will allow for a little friction while working on projects. Sometimes managment can create groupthink by shutting down those that don't tow the line.
I think one of the issues is that Engineers typically work at solving a single problem rather than developing an entire project. With Navistar, the Engineers were solving each problem as it occurred , rather than looking at the entire project and seeing that it was never going to succeed.
@tekochip: I think you raise an important point, which @dbull is also getting at -- engineers are often looking at just one part of a problem. This is particularly true in large companies like Navistar. Highly-specialized engineers in large organizations may assume that someone else is taking care of the "big picture" (which may or may not be the case), and that their job is just to concern themselves with the specific aspect of the project they are responsible for.
Conversely, in smaller, "leaner" organizations (which describes more and more of our workplaces), engineers may be so busy trying to fight fires on multiple fronts that they also fail to see the big picture.
Either way, our jobs involve dealing with complex, multifaceted problems. Doing so successfully requires a balance of teamwork and individual initiative that is not easy to achieve.
I had to attend meetings and participate in group activies that were designed to impress upon us how a group will invariably make better decisions than an individual. Now you're saying that could be wrong?
Next you'll be saying it was a waste when we were forced to read "Who moved my cheese?" and write a report on it (expecting it to be praise for the book and the management that had the foresight to make us read it).
Not to mention the required reading of "Faster, Better, Cheaper" about the Mars Pathfinder mission, where we learned that it was expected to fire 10% of your staff so you could achieve your goals. Although it seemed the next two missions were failures and made the success of the first a statistical fluke...BUT I WAS EXPECTED TO EMBRACE THAT MANTRA!
Golly. Now you're saying I was right all along... :-)
BrainiacV, All the BS training is a substitute for creative thinking .......when the management clowns that have never had a creative thought of their own and have ridden the wave of their predecessors become paralyzed they relied on the latest fashionable organizational "theory" to mask their obvious incompetence.
What surprises me is the number of sycophants that go along with it ......possibly because they are just as inept and oppertunistic.......so when someone fails to adopt the party line they are branded as not being a team player and have to endure the consequences because the reality is that it's not that easy to switch jobs.
So I have learned to suck it up, play the game and do the right thing anyway .....it's either that or join the other side.
G-Whizzz, Certainly I agree with you on that. I think too many managers are still stuck in the Industrial Age instead of the Information Age. They wanted to know how long it took us to solve a problem (in my case programming) so they can estimate how long it would take for me to do it again.
If my former employer wanted my opinion, he told it to me.
I always said at that company the real story about that little boy and the emperor's clothes was that he was thrown into a dungeon and beheaded the next day.
I always viewed it as a head game to indoctrinate you into doing it their way without question.
I think some of the responses to this article are becoming "groupthink". There isn't usually just one problem but many. Yes, most of us think we can solve any problem. And maybe some of us can (not just engineering problems). But sometimes we get the question wrong. If there are multiple problems and we identify one, such as groupthink, then we are already on our way to at least partial failure.
Most of the time the "leaders" are simply bureaucrats, or even worse, engineers that have become bureaucrats. Even independent engineers have been conditioned over the years to give in to these leaders for survival. I think it's gotten worse over the years. We need to become the new leaders without becoming part of the problem. That is the next challenge for engineers whether they go into the field or not. I believe we are the best thinkers. And group thinking is not bad as long as you know why and what you are thinking, both the pros and the cons.
IT certainly can be a fatal problem if all of the group agrees that some incorrect choice is the correct one. This was a very big problem in some companies where the senior members decisions were never challenged. It is also a problem in companies where the person in charge will challenge the skills of all who offer alternative ideas.
My method for handling things that don't seem to be correct is to ask for a more detailed explanation, since I don't completely understand how the proposed plan will work. If there is an explanation as a result, the error may become obvious to the one offering the explanation, or, if my understanding was incorrect, it is corrected. The benefit of this approach is that most of the time it does not place the other party in a defensive position, since it is not seen as a challenge.
For those times when unrealistic completion times are chosen, I generally ask about the details of how the required assets and resources will be made available. On many occasions it becomes clear that some aspect of the project has been overlooked and left out. So pointing out the additional efforts required will tend to make the completion time estimates more rational. But sometimes the completion time is not based on reality, but simply on whims of those running the show, in which case rational thinking is useless.
I remeber when I was in college that the idea that one plays well with others is the most important aspect of one's professional life. Never mind that most of what is accomplished by those types of people tends to border on the mediocre (and on which side of the border is your opinion).
Looking at history, a large number of the great advances came by an individual that didn't fit within the system. Conformity often means the the same product is produced again and again with little inovationa nd few new things tried. After all, those old ideas sold last year...
How many Edisons and Einsteins have we run out of our current groups because they didn't think like the group? And how many of those groups produced something of lesser value because they threw out the one who thought differently? Kind of like the account in the book The Skunk Works about talking to the Navy brass about a stelth ship design - "We don't build ships that way..."
And then I have also seen the idea of working well with the group pushed because it let someone, who thought they were the superstar, control the group and use the group as a way to justify his own flawed ideas. "But you all agreed..."
I retired from a company in which programs were scheduled from right to left. In other words, management knew when the product had to be launched--then, they went to the "boys" in engineering and had them fill in the milestones dates to "make it happen". Oh by the way, we always had a stretch target; a completion date sooner than the actual launch date. One huge problem, there were days in which we had up to six or even seven meetings to discuss the program. Management would demand the engineers attend so they could understand why we were behind. An additional problem--no decisions were made by individuals responsible for the program. Every decision had to be a "group effort". Because of personnel schedules, some decisions were delayed for days. Corporate life can be hazardous to your health.
And from my experience one of the worst things to do would be to put on a schedule the amount of time it would take to make the decision or sign the paper work. People at the top of the food chain did not want to know that they were the cause of delays.
After a bit more thought I have concluded that the companies run by those who see concensus as the way to do everything deserve every bit of grief that they get. The reality is that not all ideas are of equal value, and not all engineers are equal in their skill sets. So, basing a decision making process on the theory that nobody has a better idea is a fairly certain way to assure that the best choices are never made. Those who choose to run the show based on that concept should be left to fail, so that there will be more room for companies that have a better understanding of reality.
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