What Stops Groups from Working Together Effectively – Overcoming Bias

Reading Time: 6 minutes

This is a follow up to an earlier post on The Role of Diversity in Knowledge Management. The focus of that post was directed more towards knowledge management but it was also a post about how groups collaboratively make decisions or find innovative solutions.  This is a continuation of that post.

Inhibiting Factors

An effective route to any kind of organizational initiative can be found in the application of a Force Field Analysis (FFA); a tool for systematically analyzing factors found in complex problems. The method used in FFA includes identifying the “restraining forces” or inhibiting factors preventing an initiative from moving forward. The theory is that by identifying and then systematically removing those factors or barriers to success the initiative can proceed successfully. Below are the inhibiting factors that relate to work groups or teams. By looking at each and systematically identifying and looking for ways to removing the barrier we might be able to increase the effectiveness of group decision making and solution finding.


The primary limiting factor is bias. There are many types of bias and all relate to how an individual views or perceives the world. The following list, presented as problems and solutions, includes types of bias and how to remove or prevent them from impacting the effectiveness of CI.

Problem: In-group bias – Group members favour and support the ideas presented by their own group members.

Solution: Shield group members from knowing the identity of others in the group. This is especially important at the thought generation stage where in-group bias can influence the ideas generated. In addition organizations can use technologies that allow for the inclusion of those not in the in-group.

Problem: Out-group homogeneity – We tend to view people not in our in-group as being all alike. We stereotype and think that “They are all like that”. This tendency we all have towards seeing people not like us as holding similar views can cause problems in diverse groups. Group members can unconsciously negatively or positively stereotype other group members which can influence their own ideas and alignment with others ideas. Both in-group and out-group bias relate to representativeness bias which is a heuristic (mental shortcut) we often use to place people and things into groups. The downside of these kinds of mental leaps is that grouping can prevent us from seeing unique qualities in people and the potential of their ideas.

Solution: Online groups can be diverse without triggering our out-group homogeneity by keeping the identity of group members anonymous.

Problem: Groupthink – We have a tendency toward doing what others do. This is often called the bandwagon or herd effect. This is the best case against traditional brainstorming and collective decision making in a face to face environment.

Solution: Use technology to mask the herd by eliciting thoughts and ideas without exposing participants to others thoughts or ideas.

Problem: Social Loafing – The larger the number of individuals whose work is combined on a group task, the smaller is each individuals contribution. In short we contribute less when we are working together as a group. This is true in a tug of war and studies suggest it is also true in some kinds of team work.

Solution: People are more motivated and tend to contribute more when they believe that their work is identifiable and separable from the work of others. This may seem like a bit of a conundrum. Shielded surveys works because it can make participants anonymous yet that very thing may reduce individual contribution.  There are several ways to address this. One way is to keep group input anonymous for the “brainstorm” section only. After that responses can be attributed thereby motivating people to contribute their unique and uninfluenced ideas knowing that their contributions will eventually be seen by the entire group. This option works best with groups comprised of individuals who are confident and where trust has been established. Another option is to use a facilitator role as the group eyes. Even though the entire group may not know how much each individual contributed, the facilitator will, and that can help the activity be seen as identifiable and separate.

Problem: Social Facilitation – This theory suggests that we do better at some things when we are, or believe that we are, being watched. Conversely, on tasks that are new or that we are challenged by performance gets worse when watched. Both of these situations can negatively impact participation in face to face sessions. People will tend to over participate in generating common knowledge and under participate in generating new knowledge or presenting novel ideas.

Solution: Help participants find the balance between being “watched” by a supportive facilitator and being able to struggle invisibly. This combination can support out-of-the-box and professionally riskier ideas and potential solutions.

Problem: Group Polarization – When brought together to discuss a problem or possible decisions some groups can end up taking more extreme positions than they had begun with. People often dig in on a stance and any discussion just causes them to dig in more or become more supportive of one idea over another. Believing in one view over another in not in itself a problem; the problem occurs when it causes people to become so fixed that they become blind to other perspectives. Part of the reason for this is that when people have to verbally defend a position the act of defending causes them to believe even more strongly in that position. In effect they are convincing themselves as they try to convince others. Another related problem with this is that some people are perceived as more knowledgeable or more powerful or they may be more charismatic and have expert communication skills. None of these attributes ensure that the idea they are presenting is the best one. Indeed the best solution or idea may be held by someone who does not have the capacity in a face to face group to push their agenda forward. The net result of group polarization can be a decision that is riskier than hoped for or needed.

Solution: Take steps to manage discussion by using a neutral facilitator and with groups where there is a history or concern that polarization will occur make the process anonymous and/or allow discussion to take place asynchronously greatly lessening the likelihood of polarization. In addition facilitators can level the field by reframing individuals thoughts and ideas into one voice (theme the individual responses into groups of responses) so that it is the thought, the idea, that is judged and not the strength of the person advocating for it.

Problem: Risky Shift – Overall groups tend towards making riskier decisions. This is sometimes seen in mob behaviour where individuals often act of character doing things they would never consider doing as individuals. Some of the theories supporting this include the notion that individuals who tend toward risk taking are more persuasive and that there is cultural value in risk taking.

Solution: Minimize the influence risk takers have on a group by anonymous and/or asynchronous interactions. This may help Individuals from getting caught up in the moment and making decisions or choices too quickly. In short, give people time to think and reflect.

Problem: Common Knowledge Effect – This is more colloquially referred to as common sense. Common sense suggests that world is flat. Researchers have found that teams tend to focus on shared, “in common” information, when making decisions.  If most of the team members “know” something, that knowledge is seen as more valid than information or knowledge held by fewer group or team members. The result is that unique information is not shared and when it is it is often ignored. Social science research suggests that the reason for this is that sociality trumps effectiveness. As innately social creatures we actively and unconsciously seek similarities when we meet others. When we are first introduced to someone we usually try to find something that ties us together in a social bond. Once we find a common interest or viewpoint we tend to hold on to that as a way of cementing the relationship. This occurs more often when there is increased value in the maintaining the relationship.

Solution: The influences that cause group members to default to social beings invested in relationship building at the expense of critical decision making and solution finding can be minimized by using technology and facilitated processes so that uncommon knowledge can be shared on equal footing with common knowledge and the negative influences of social bonding can be separated from the process.

Of course I’m a fan of online technology like Thoughtexchange to accomplish reduce the bias that accompanies face-to-face engagement. The platform was developed with these biases in mind so it’s no accident that Tx effectively removes, or at least reduces, these kinds of barriers.

I’m also a huge fan of of well facilitated processes and spending the time to create a healthy team but realize that that is not always possible, especially if we’re trying to include more diversity but inviting in team members for specific issues and/or shorter time frames.

What are some other ideas about reducing bias in group or team environments? What have you found that works?


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A Case for Collaborative Technology – What Klaatu Didn’t Say

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Close to 40 years ago the Club of Rome published a report called Limits to Growth. In it they described the global problematique due in part to the physical limitations of our small and interconnected world. In a nutshell they said that we live on a small planet with limited resources and that if we didn’t smarten up we would soon run out of those. It was not a particularly popular report and many tried to shoot the messenger. A few years later they proposed a solution to the problem outlined in that first report.

In the forward to their second report No Limits to Learning, Club of Rome founder Aurelio Peccei suggested that “…what we all need at this point in human evolution is to learn what it takes to learn what we should learn – and learn it”. The report goes on to say that as humans we are good at learning and that in fact there is no known limit to what humans can learn. They are quick to point out however that there are different kinds of learning and that if we are to survive as a species we need to learn in the right way.

Humans do learn in a variety of ways, as individual and as groups and as societies. Typically we follow a pattern of maintenance and shock learning. Maintenance learning is designed to maintain our current state. It’s if/then, rule based learning. It’s a great system as long as nothing changes.

The 2008 version of  The Day the Earth Stood Still is just one of perhaps thousands of movies, plays and books that use learning by shock as a plot line. The exchange between Professor Barnhardt played by John Cleese and Keanu Reeves character Klaatu articulates the concept of learning by shock perfectly.

Professor Barnhardt: There must be alternatives. You must have some technology that could solve our problem.
Klaatu: Your problem is not technology. The problem is you. You lack the will to change.
Professor Barnhardt: Then help us change.
Klaatu: I cannot change your nature. You treat the world as you treat each other.
Professor Barnhardt: But every civilization reaches a crisis point eventually.
Klaatu: Most of them don’t make it.
Professor Barnhardt: Yours did. How?
Klaatu: Our sun was dying. We had to evolve in order to survive.
Professor Barnhardt: So it was only when your world was threatened with destruction that you became what you are now.
Klaatu: Yes.
Professor Barnhardt: Well that’s where we are. You say we’re on the brink of destruction and you’re right. But it’s only on the brink that people find the will to change. Only at the precipice do we evolve. This is our moment. Don’t take it from us, we are close to an answer.

“Only at the precipice do we evolve.” We can and do learn by shock. It’s an effective but risky way to learn. If necessity is the mother of invention then impending disaster is the mother of innovation. There is another way however. Learning to learn the right way could save us from the mess we’ve created.

The right way, is to learn by innovation driven by anticipation and participation. Anticipation is the willingness and ability to look ahead and imagine “what if”. It’s a systems view that takes into account all that could happen if we do or don’t do X. Anticipation alone is not enough however. It needs to be linked to participation. Anticipation by only a select few doesn’t allow for the broad base of support needed to make effective changes. This is true in business and in societal change.

Participatory learning means including as many diverse viewpoints as possible. Those in power have to be willing to stand aside and allow this to happen. Participatory learning needs permission and room to evolve. Leaders need to actively invite a wide range of people into the process. As important as this step is, it is also just a first step. Participatory learning is more than just the sharing of the decision making process; “it is an attitude characterized by cooperation, dialogue, and empathy. It means not only keeping communications open but also constantly testing one’s operating rules and values, retaining those that are relevant and rejecting those that have become obsolescent” (No Limits to Learning).

Social media and networking are helping to create a mind and skill set that speaks to this change in attitude. Granted a lot of the sharing of interests that bring people into social media environments are things like Lolcats, or this is what I had for breakfast… and other seemingly unimportant bits of data. These baby steps into the world of open collaboration are at least that, first steps into a different, less soloed, more connected, participatory world.

Twitter is filled with those openly acknowledging that platform as their Personal Learning Environment (PLE) and those they follow as their Personal Learning Network (PLN). Wiki’s are evolving into crowd sourcing platforms like Quora and .Phile. The concept of participation seems to have grown by leaps and bounds since the Club of Rome authors first wrote about the necessity. The increase in connectivism and open participation facilitates the ability to proactively anticipate what might be. The more eyes on the problem you are trying to solve the better. Better still is including those that see things differently.

Scott E. Page in his  book, “The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools and Societies” (Princeton University Press), looks at the power of diversity from a mathematical angle rather than a moral one. In a 2008 New York Times interview Page makes a case for diversity over homogenous organizations saying that,

Diverse groups of people bring to organizations more and different ways of seeing a problem and, thus, faster/better ways of solving it.

People from different backgrounds have varying ways of looking at problems, what I call “tools.” The sum of these tools is far more powerful in organizations with diversity than in ones where everyone has gone to the same schools, been trained in the same mold and thinks in almost identical ways.

The problems we face in the world are very complicated. Any one of us can get stuck. If we’re in an organization where everyone thinks in the same way, everyone will get stuck in the same place.

But if we have people with diverse tools, they’ll get stuck in different places. One person can do their best, and then someone else can come in and improve on it. There’s a lot of empirical data to show that diverse cities are more productive, diverse boards of directors make better decisions, the most innovative companies are diverse.

Breakthroughs in science increasingly come from teams of bright, diverse people. That’s why interdisciplinary work is the biggest trend in scientific research.

Learning by innovation that is driven and steered by anticipation of what might be and grounded in the participation of large and diverse groups of people is the ideal learning process. It works for businesses, NPO’s, scientific communities, cities and societies. But just saying it is so does not make it so nor does it make it happen. Leaders, influencers, both formal and informal, can help the process by modeling and facilitating the process of innovative learning.

Participatory, open government processes and new leadership models in business can go a long way in the effort to re-train ourselves to think and learn in the right way, the innovative way. As Klaatu suggests the problem is not technology, the problem is in how we think, how we learn. The solution is changing that and technology looks like it will play a critical role in fostering that change. Technology is a tool that we can use to help people learn to understand complexity and to anticipate and participate in innovative learning and solution finding.

Integrating technologies that enhance collaboration between diverse groups is easier than ever. There are literally hundreds of free or inexpensive tools available. As already suggested social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook and even LinkedIn are first steps in learning to share, listen and connect along the road to collaboration. Wiki’s, forums and software like THOUGHTstream are vehicles that can drive us towards better, more innovative learning and solution finding. To not take these steps is to miss opportunities that can not only save a business but may well save us from ourselves.

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