The Perils of Piecemeal Analysis:
by Rick Brenner
When a team relies on group discussion alone to evaluate proposals for the latest show-stopping near-disaster, it exposes itself to the risk that perfectly sound proposals might be inappropriately rejected. The source of some of this risk is the nature of group discussion.
In "The Perils of Piecemeal Analysis: Content," Point Lookout for December 17, 2008, we defined piecemeal analysis as a group process for analyzing proposals — a real-time process of discussion, most often used when the group is subject to stress and tight time constraints. We saw there how the content of the discussion can degrade decision quality, but the form of the discussion itself also creates risks. Here are just a few.
- Elevated risk of groupthink
Groupthink happens when the members of a group value consensus above decision quality. It's more likely to occur when there are social pressures against dissent, which is seen as a threat to harmony. In piecemeal analysis, when the leaders of the group begin to coalesce around rejection of the proposal, the rate of contribution of new objections can escalate so dramatically that proposers withdraw their ideas. But even if the proposer remains steadfast, groupthink can doom the proposal.
Chief Warrant Officer Nicholas Punimata is congratulated by Army Chief of Staff, General Eric Shinseki, upon receiving the General Douglas MacArthur award at a ceremony at the Pentagon on May 23, 2001. The award, sponsored by the U.S. Army and the General Douglas MacArthur Foundation, is given each year to company grade officers who exhibit extraordinary leadership abilities and embody the ideals embraced by Gen. MacArthur: Duty, Honor, Country. Gen. Shinseki himself was to exhibit those same extraordinary leadership abilities in 2003, just before the start of the Iraq War, when he testified before Congress that establishing control in Iraq after the invasion would require several hundred thousand troops. At the time of his testimony, he knew well that his testimony constituted a public break with the civilian leaders in the executive branch. Following his testimony, he was vilified and marginalized by those officials. His influence evaporated, and he retired in June 2003. Gen. Shinseki's testimony is an example of just what is needed to prevent both groupthink and pluralistic ignorance. The administration's action in marginalizing him, and possibly inhibiting any further comment by Gen. Shinseki or anyone else, is a clear example of the power leaders have to exploit both groupthink and pluralistic ignorance. Photo courtesy U.S. House of Representatives.
- Elevated risk of pluralistic ignorance
- Pluralistic ignorance is a group phenomenon in which anyone who dissents from an emerging consensus masks his or her dissent because of a belief that the unanimity of the group makes expressing dissent futile, and might even alienate the dissenter from the group. In this way, dissenters can actually be in the majority, while everyone believes the group is unanimous.
- Elevated risk of group polarization
- Group polarization is the tendency of groups to adopt positions more extreme than the group's members would adopt if acting alone. Polarization happens because people feel less responsible for the group decision than they would if they made it themselves; because those with strong opinions can persuade the hesitant or dubious; and because people become more comfortable with the extreme when they realize others support it. The group decision process is thus susceptible to positive feedback effects.
- Once the proposer completes
the presentation, the
proposal itself adopts
a defensive posture
- Appearances can be liabilities
- If the proposal was presented with some polish, it can contain a latent message that it is fully developed and free of inconsistencies, even when it is a mere suggestion. After uncovering a number of objections that have no answers, people begin to see the proposal as all flash and little substance. Moreover, during the objection phase, the proposer necessarily adopts a defensive posture, which can look weak and self-serving. A piling-on effect can occur.
- Group memory plays a part
- If the group has experience with piecemeal analysis, role choices are likely to follow prior alignments. For instance, given a second proposition from the same proposer, previous objectors and defenders are likely to step forward, in similar roles. In this way, the results of previous events leak forward into the current event, independent of their relevance or the merits of the proposal.
If time allows — and it doesn't take much — avoid piecemeal analysis. Instead, do a careful study of the proposal, and then have a true debate. First in this series Top Next Issue
Do you spend your days scurrying from meeting to meeting? Do you ever wonder if all these meetings are really necessary? (They aren't) Or whether there isn't some better way to get this work done? (There is) Read 101 Tips for Effective Meetings to learn how to make meetings much more productive and less stressful — and a lot more rare. Order Now!
Your comments are welcome
Would you like to see your comments posted here? Send me your comments by email
, or by Web form
About Point Lookout
Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful,
and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend
Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive
of past issues. Subscribe for free.
Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout,
as an individual or as an organization.
Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in,
anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.
More articles on Effective Meetings
- Trips to Abilene
- When a group decides to take an action that nobody agrees with, but which no one is willing to question, we say that they're taking a trip to Abilene. Here are some tips for noticing and preventing trips to Abilene.
- TINOs: Teams in Name Only
- Perhaps the most significant difference between face-to-face teams and virtual or distributed teams is their potential to develop from workgroups into true teams — an area in which virtual or distributed teams are at a decided disadvantage. Often, virtual and distributed teams are teams in name only.
- The Fallacy of Composition
- Rhetorical fallacies are errors of reasoning that introduce flaws in the logic of arguments. Used either intentionally or by accident, they often lead us to mistaken conclusions. The Fallacy of Composition is one of the more subtle fallacies, which makes it especially dangerous.
- When the Chair Is a Bully: Part I
- Most meetings have Chairs or "leads." Although the expression that the Chair "owns" the meeting is usually innocent shorthand, some Chairs actually believe that they own the meeting. This view is almost entirely destructive. What are the consequences of this attitude, and what can we do about it?
- When the Chair Is a Bully: Part II
- Assertiveness by chairs of meetings isn't a problem in itself, but it becomes problematic when the chair's dominance deprives the meeting of contributions from some of its members. Here's Part II of our exploration of the problem of bully chairs.
See also Effective Meetings and Problem Solving and Creativity for more related articles.
I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates.
Contact Rick for details at rbrenner@ChacoCanyon.com
or (617) 491-6289, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.
Get the ebook!
Past issues of Point Lookout
are available in six ebooks:
Reprinting this article
Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline?
Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info
- The Race to the South Pole: Lessons in Risk Management for Leaders
- On 14 December 1911, four men led by Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole. Thirty-five days later, Robert F. Scott and four others followed. Amundsen had won the race to the pole. Amundsen's party returned to base on 26 January 1912. Scott's party perished. As historical drama, why this happened is interesting enough. But to organizational leaders and project managers, the story is fascinating. We'll use the history of this event to explore lessons in risk management and its application to organizational efforts. A fascinating and refreshing look at risk management from the vantage point of history. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:
- Cognitive Biases and Workplace Decision-Making
- For most of us, making decisions is a large part of what we do at work. And we tend to believe that we make our decisions rationally, except possibly when stressed or hurried. That is a mistaken belief — very few of our decisions are purely rational. In this eye-opening yet entertaining program, Rick Brenner guides you through the fascinating world of cognitive biases, and he'll give concrete tips to help you control the influence of cognitive biases. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:
- MITRE, in Bedford, MA: October 21, Monthly Meeting, Boston SPIN.
- The Race to the South Pole: Ten Lessons for Project Managers
- On 14 December 1911, four men led by Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole. Thirty-five days later, Robert F. Scott and four others followed. Amundsen had won the race to the pole. Amundsen's party returned to base on 26 January 1912. Scott's party perished. As historical drama, why this happened is interesting enough, but to project managers, the story is fascinating. Lessons abound. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:
- The Politics of Meetings for People Who Hate Politics
- There's a lot more to running an effective meeting than having the right room, the right equipment, and the right people. With meetings, the whole really is more than the sum of its parts. How the parts interact with each other and with external elements is as important as the parts themselves. And those interactions are the essence of politics for meetings. This program explores techniques for leading meetings that are based on understanding political interactions, and using that knowledge effectively to meet organizational goals. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program: