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.
- 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 Once the proposer completes
the presentation, the
proposal itself adopts
a defensive posturehas 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
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More articles on Effective Meetings:
- Games for Meetings: Part III
- We spend a lot of time and emotional energy in meetings, much of it engaged in any of dozens of ritualized games. Here's Part III of a little catalog of some of our favorites, and what we could do about them.
- Discussion Distractions: Part I
- Meetings could be far more productive, if only we could learn to recognize and prevent the distractions that lead us off topic and into the woods. Here is Part I of a small catalog of distractions frequently seen in meetings.
- Discussion Distractions: Part II
- Meetings are less productive than they might be, if we could learn to recognize and prevent the most common distractions. Here is Part II of a small catalog of distractions frequently seen in meetings.
- Finding the Third Way
- When a team is divided, and agreement seems out of reach, attempts to resolve the conflict usually focus on the differences between the contrasting positions. Focusing instead on their similarities can be a productive technique for reaching agreement.
- 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.
Forthcoming Issues of Point Lookout
- Coming April 8: Why We Don't Care Anymore
- As a consultant and coach I hear about what people hate about their jobs. Here's some of it. It might help you appreciate your job. Available here and by RSS on April 8.
- And on April 15: Overconfidence at Work
- Confidence in our judgments and ourselves is essential to success. Confidence misplaced — overconfidence — leads to trouble and failure. Let us examine the causes and consequences of overconfidence. Available here and by RSS on April 15.
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