What’s the route to higher efficacy and productivity?  Might that be by staffing with "messy" groups?  So suggests a recent book entitled The Difference:  How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools and Societies by Scott E. Page, professor of complex systems, political science and economics at the University of Michigan. 

Using mathematical modeling, Dr.

Oddly enough, where it is most needed, Boards and other management groups may be the last frontier for achieving enhanced performance management. 

Historically, the perceived advantages of relying on a managing group, instead of one individual, include access to the group’s collective wisdom –"several heads are better than one"–as well as the ability to spread an increasing management workload over a number of people. 

A recent Center for Creative Leadership study identified an additional advantage. Effective management these days requires the resources of several people, rather than the lone hero, in order to meet the global challenges of collaboratively connecting across boundaries of all kinds—geography, language, culture and expertise.

Avoiding "Extreme" Group Decision-Making

Yet there is a well-documented propensity for groups to drift toward "extreme" decisions, that is, a committee often makes a decision that none of the individual members of the committee, acting alone, would make. These group decisions can be extreme by being either extremely risky or extremely conservative, and you see lone Directors routinely disavowing their cohorts’ actions after the fact. There seem to be a number of reasons for this tendency:          

Diffusion of Responsibility. An individual’s part in a group’s decision evidently weighs less heavily on him/her than an individual decision would, the implication being that not as thorough an evaluation of the issues is made when the decision is attributed to the group.

Ignoring the Lone Voice. Often groups do not properly take into account the most relevant expertise in the room.   Most small groups tend to make decisions based on the information all members share about a topic, overlooking important facts that one or several people bring. Although management committees are usually looking for creative, out-of-the-box strategies, a solitary opinion is often taken lightly or ignored in the flow of debate within the group.

Social Pressure. The more bonded the group, the more committed they are likely to be to reaching a decision, particularly one that pleases most of the members, even if a decision should be delayed or a less pleasing one would in fact be best. 

Competition. When committee members agree on the parameters of an issue, individuals may try to one-up each other by suggesting more and more extreme solutions, then promoting their solution as the best.

Stress. Groups under pressure act very much like individuals under stress, only more so. They often procrastinate, calling for further information, or become committed to bad decisions primarily to protect themselves and each other against criticism. This effect may account for the popular notion that committees tend to "split the baby," resulting in a less controversial solution that does not in fact work very well.

Seeing What Others Say

The impact of psychological factors on group decision making may go even further, to actually alter each person’s perceptions. A study using advanced brain-scanning technology shows that, in effect, group members often in fact see what the group tells them they see. In an exercise involving mentally rotating images of three-dimensional objects to determine if the objects were the same or different, subjects were assured of an incorrect conclusion by confederates and then agreed with those wrong answers 41% of the time. The brain activity of those who went along with the group was markedly different from those who took independent positions. When subjects concurred with wrong answers, activity increased in the area of the brain devoted to spatial awareness, meaning that their actual perceptions were being influenced. Those who made independent judgments showed activity in the region of the brain associated with conflict management, signifying an emotional toll for going against the group’s perception.

Based on the results of this study, one of the potential major advantages of a group decision—"several heads are better than one"—can disappear if the group successfully, even if unintentionally, co-opts individual insights. The most problematic aspect of these results is that not only does the group lose the "lone voices," but also the lone voices lose their very awareness of their differing perspectives. The change in their perception makes them incapable of raising their idiosyncratic flags.

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