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Group Think Re-Invented

by Darci Congrove

Fifteen years ago, I remember my supervisor counseling me that in order to progress in my career, it was going to be important to develop my own individual thoughts, and to be able to articulate my positions and arguments effectively. Later, oth

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er well-meaning advisors cautioned not to get caught up in “group-think,” the corporate process of averaging good and bad ideas, generally in a very long and boring meeting, which almost always ends with consensus around answers that are mediocre at best.

Two years ago, I was serving as a board trustee for a small nonprofit organization. Our Executive Director had resigned, and another associate had moved out of state. We were left with one employee, who was overwhelmed with the work that needed to be done. It was a tense board meeting, to say the least. I remember that we met for a very long time that night to make a plan, and I distinctly remember one specific sentence, spoken by Mary, the president of the board. She said, “We’re going to need everyone’s best thinking on this tonight.” Her simple request set the tone for a conversation that was collaborative, and that forced each person at the table to offer his or her ideas. Ultimately, that group participation forced each of us to take ownership – together – for the overall action plan, and it worked.

Yesterday, I read a very interesting article in the January 16 issue of Fortune, entitled “Fortune‘s Guide to the Future,” which made me remember that board meeting, and Mary’s statement. The author, Nina Easton, describes a shift in corporate culture, which she calls the “democratization of the workplace,” where hierarchy disappears and the best ideas are generated from any member of the team, at any level in the organization. Essentially, this is a bigger version of Mary’s idea- to be successful, businesses need everyone’s best thinking, not just the best thinking of the people in formal leadership roles.

Easton’s article goes on to describe a new definition of who could be included in “everyone,” and it might surprise you. The best ideas may actually come from people who don’t even work for the organization. An excerpt from the article:

“The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is already using social media to harness new talent. ‘What if a 13-year-old could contribute to a cure for cancer?’ asks Regina Dugan, director of the agency. DARPA runs a public computer game called Foldit, in which competitors try to fold proteins, one of the most difficult biochemistry impediments to curing disease. Misfolded proteins lead to diseases such as mad cow, Alzheimer’s, and cystic fibrosis. Since Foldit launched in May 2008, more than 236,000 gamers have registered, their contributions helping to decipher the structure of an enzyme responsible for causing AIDS in Rhesus monkeys – the first example of a major breakthrough in crowd-sourced science, Dugan says. ‘Innovation,’ she notes, ‘benefits when the number and diversity of people participating goes up.’”

So, “group-thinking” can be productive after all? Even innovative?

It seems that a continuous commitment to gathering “everyone’s best thinking” about what’s next and what’s possible could result in an awesome explosion of ideas, and probably a better business. We’re trying it at GBQ, in small steps, admittedly, but trying nonetheless.

Last month, we held a contest and asked our associates for ideas to make GBQ better. More than 40 ideas were submitted, most of which were well-organized and interesting. All of our associates were then given an opportunity to vote for the best ideas. Our team chose four very good ideas for implementation, all of which have been incorporated into our 2012 strategic plan.

So far, so good. Stay tuned for our ongoing experiment in gathering our group’s thinking.

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