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How to mitigate groupthink on agile teams

Gerie Owen Sr. Test Manager, Cubic Transportation Systems
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Close-knit teams may think they have agreement on many things that are important to their workflows: on features, on technical approach, and on implementation. But something other than true agreement might be in play here.

Does your agile team overestimate its velocity and capacity? Is the team automatically agreeing, with little discussion during daily standups, iteration planning, or review meetings? Is silence perceived as acceptance of a statement made by a team member? If so, your collaboration may have devolved into groupthink.

Here's why it should be resisted and what you can do about it.

How groupthink hurts agile teams

Groupthink is a group dynamics theory developed by Irving Janus in 1971. Janus described it as the tendency of some groups to try to minimize conflict and reach consensus without sufficiently testing, analyzing, and evaluating their ideas. Janus’s research suggested that the development of a group’s norms tends to place limits around the independent and creative thinking of the group members. As a result, a group’s analysis may be biased, leading to poor decisions. 

The nature and dynamics of agile teams make them particularly susceptible to groupthink. The most common agile self-organized teams are cohesive units that are usually physically insulated from the mainstream of the larger organization. Together, they learn agile processes, learn to work together, and work to accomplish their sprint goals all at the same time.

While an agile team's physical insulation can be valuable in that it lets a team work with a minimum of outside distractions, it may also prevent team members from hearing and acknowledging alternative points of view. As much as agile teams are managed by servant leadership, several leaders eventually emerge with different personalities, leadership styles, and types of influence. All of these factors set the stage for groupthink.

 What are signs that groupthink is at work?

Symptoms of groupthink that are especially noticeable on an agile team include illusion of invulnerability—for example, unrealistic time estimates, collective rationalization, and self-censorship during meetings and team discussions. “We are doing it right; everyone else is wrong.” Team members and outside contributors such as quality assurance or usability professionals may be stereotyped by the core team, and their views are not valued as highly as other members of the team.

Consider what can happen when agile teams incorrectly size backlog items due to the planning fallacy, which makes them overly optimistic, then fail to meet the commitments of the sprint. When team members attempt to minimize conflict and reach consensus so quickly that all options are not fully analyzed, the best alternative may not be the one that is chosen. In fact, groupthink may be leading them down a completely wrong path. This could lead to poor design choices, inadequate assessment of risk, or failure to meet the customer’s expectations.

How you can manage groupthink tendencies 

Groupthink can be managed individually (i.e., an individual can manage his or her role in groupthink activity), internally within the group, and externally by managers. Successfully managing groupthink involves all team members, as well as scrum masters and managers of the team members. 

Understanding individual biases and mindsets

Individual team members can learn to recognize and manage their own mindsets and biases; for instance, self-directed questions such as "Am I not speaking up because I don't want to create trouble?" can help team members determine whether or not they are participating in groupthink. Teams can reduce the potential for groupthink through their self-organization. And managers who are not directly part of a group can alter team dynamics using container, differences, and exchange theory, described below.

Although groupthink happens as a result of flawed group dynamics, managing groupthink begins with the individuals and how they interact within their teams. Mindset theory helps explain how this can work. Mindset theory was developed by Carol Dweck and published in Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. She defines fixed and growth mindsets that impact how people approach challenges in life. People with fixed mindsets are focused on proving their own intelligence, whereas those with growth mindsets see failure as opportunities to learn. Team members with fixed mindsets may contribute to groupthink. According to Dweck, "Leaders, to bolster their ego, suppress dissent. Or workers, seeking validation from leaders, fall into line behind them."

Individual biases can bolster groupthink within a team. Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman and his collaborator Amos Tversky identified over 100 cognitive biases; those that can lead to groupthink are in the areas of decision making and sprint planning. Representativeness, the confirmation bias, and framing, can affect decision making; the planning fallacy and the sunk cost fallacy can affect sprint planning.

How teams can control groupthink

Teams can mitigate the potential for groupthink through the manner in which they self-organize. Teams should appoint a devil’s advocate to point out negative implications of a decision. The order of speakers should be rotated so that later speakers are not unduly influenced by informational signals from those who spoke first.

Often those team members with stronger personalities tend to monopolize conversations, so it is important to get the input of all team members before making a decision. Finally, servant leaders can mitigate groupthink by encouraging a group growth mindset and establishing an environment in which social pressures are discouraged.

The manager's role in groupthink mitigation

Scrum masters or managers can use Containers, Differences, and Exchanges (CDE) theory to mitigate groupthink. Glenda Eoyang, the executive director of the Human Systems Dynamics Institute, developed CDE theory from her research on organizational behavior. 

Containers, differences and exchanges are factors that influence how a team self-organizes, thinks, and behaves as a group. The "container" (not to be confused with container technology such as Docker!) creates the bounds under which the system forms. For the agile team, this is the physical space shared by collocated team members. The "difference" refers to the ways in which a team deals with the divergent backgrounds of its individual members, including the various technical backgrounds and specializations of the developers. The "exchange" is how the group interacts within itself and with its stakeholders. 

Managers can influence group dynamics by changing one or more of the CDE factors. For example, a manager can change the difference factor by adding a team member with a different technical specialty or personality. Likewise, the exchange factor can be changed by increasing or decreasing the time or budget for individual sprints.

Don't take the easy route: Be wary of groupthink

It’s easy for collaboration to become groupthink in close-knit agile teams, because the desire for fast consensus and decision making can be strong. However, both team members and managers can recognize the symptoms and make adjustments to guide the teams back to high performance. 

Agile teams can be highly effective in software development and delivery, but groupthink is a danger that can hamper their ability to be creative in their work. Managers and teams have to be cognizant of groupthink and should manage it individually, within the team and externally, if necessary.

Image credit: Flickr

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