How to identify Groupthink symptoms in my agile team

One of the most important things as agile teams that we need to do is make decisions. To make decisions it is necessary for our teams to exchange information, which can be very hard and can take us to a non-finished cycle where anybody can decide which is the best solution for our team.

There are other problems that came with making decisions, one of them is groupthink. That is what we are going to talk about in the next paragraphs.

Groupthink occurs when “a team conforms to a strong leader’s opinion and has little tolerance for divergent opinions” (Source)

How to identify groupthink

Lost of information:

Groupthink can result when team members don’t share all the info and the teams don’t have the correct information to make decisions. But not just that, sometimes it happens when members just express the same info that all the team already knows, so the team focus on situations that they already take into consideration making it more difficult to focus on the real problems.

SO, what happens when members don’t know about current work? Group thinking. Members are going to make a decision based on what they know, and end up choosing what all the members decide for because they are not aware of what is going on and don't have the correct Information to make a proper decision.

Daily standups can be a strong weapon to avoid these behaviors. When all the team knows what's happening and you understand what the people are talking about, they make more informed decisions individually.

Some of the things that the teams should take into consideration when they need to make a decision are about progress in our work that sometimes we didn’t share. Like: What were those decisions? What is that code for? Why that path? Sharing this kind of basic info can be very helpful to avoid group thinking.

Lack of Empowerment and trust

Members are used to make decisions with the manager or superior help. Usually, they are the ones that make important decisions. In agile teams it is different. All team members can give their opinion and decide what is working better for the team. If you don’t bring a supportive environment where team members can share their thoughts and explain why certain decisions are better. In the end, the team will opt for the superior decision, that not all the time is the best solution.

Participatory decisions are one of the first values you should be fostering in your team to ensure that all the members express their opinions and in the end take the best solution. Ensure a culture of trust in your team.

effective decision making by Agile teams (Source)

No Group cohesion

If members don’t feel safe they are not going to express their ideas and decisions. So start with ensuring that all the members have the correct environment to help and involve the team. Give the empowerment to feel that they belong to the team and they need to help them, and making decisions is in their accountability. Gather all the team when it is time to make decisions and make all the teams participate, fostering good communication can help you to avoid to follow the decisions of just some of the members and reinforce the capability to make decisions.

The Abilene Paradox

Conceptualized as a form of collective decision making where a group decides on a course of action that no single member would have taken if they were the decision-maker. Source

Sometimes members just follow the most common decisions, just to say something, because the teams are not listening to all the options or because they think that maybe the group can feel harmed or offended because of the different opinions. When the Abilene Paradox occurs, members just follow decisions that maybe they wouldn't make. The problem here is sometimes members make a bad adoption or bad performance because they don’t expect that the solution works. What does that mean? Bad performance, no open feedback, reworking, and delays.

Group thinking (Source)

If members that have this group thinking behavior, make decisions, have an opinion, or have an accurate solution it won't be expressed. The result: all the members opt for the expressed solution that is actually contrary to the view of all members.

There is no consideration to alternative plans:

Another symptom that occurs when team members are incurring in group thinking is once the team picks a solution there is no space for alternatives. The members don’t seek other opinions and the risk is not considered. Making decisions without looking for more alternatives or possible risks can take us to bad decisions and delays. Alternative decisions are needed to have a contingency plan in case our first plan doesn’t work, which can’t happen if the team just decided with groupthink without other alternatives.

Another Group thinking symptoms:

  • The group limits its discussion to only a few alternatives
  • After a course of action is initially selected, members ignore new information concerning its risks and drawbacks
  • The group avoids information concerning the benefits of rejected alternatives
  • Group members make little attempt to use experts to obtain more precise information
  • The group fails to consider what may go wrong and as such do not develop contingency plans


How to avoid Group thinking

  • Retrospectives: This ceremony can give us some trouble if we are talking about groupthink. Sometimes members just follow the first idea that the first member expressed, incurring in focusing the ceremony on the same problems and avoiding deep introspection. With Agile Retrospectives for Jira or Confluence, members can express their ideas simultaneously avoiding group thinking and saving time.

  • Effective decision making by Agile teams is a function of the level of cohesion existing in a team and the subsequent level of empowerment in decision making bestowed upon the team by the project manager. Source

  • Devil’s advocate: to examine and challenge any assumptions that decision-makers hold. When all the team is decided on the same points, introspection is necessary to find real solutions. Member will opt for the first solutions that came up without even inspect about the possible risk, without reflection or discussion.

  • Encourages speaking up: ask the group how a different group would approach the same issue or frame questions in a different way.

  • Safe environment: sometimes members don’t give their opinion because they feel afraid of been seen as ignorant or incompetent. Saving their opinions and fostering groupthink. When members feel safe to express their concerns and disagreements is easier. It is also important because when a member starts to give her/his opinion all the members will feel safe to give their own.

Agile performance allows our team to work individually but with a group goal in mind. Group thinking can be harmful behavior. to ensure the success of our teams and make better decisions we need to encourage our members to speak up and find more & better solutions together.