Did you ever watch in dismay as a good team began to make a series of bad decisions?
It can happen with any kind of team – a work team, sports team, political team, or volunteer team… in any kind of setting – business, government, school, non-profit.
Here’s what happens: The team starts off enthusiastically and moves ahead quickly. Things seem to be humming along, and then, bam! They make some terrible decisions, things come to a screeching halt, and everyone wants to jump ship.
If you’ve ever been a member of one of these teams, you know how devastating it is for all involved. If you wondered what happened, you might find some clues here.
More importantly, if you are currently a member of a team, keep in mind these 7 reasons why good teams make bad decisions to give you an early alert when you’re heading for trouble.
1. Missing Key Information or Expertise
When forming a team, it is important to make sure “the right people are on the bus” with access to the information and expertise, resources and support the team needs. They need to have representation from those who will be affected by the team’s decisions, those who will be charged with implementation and those who will use their services. Teams that work in a vacuum are in grave danger of making decisions that seem smart, but can’t be implemented effectively.
Recently I worked with a fundraising team that was trying to recover from a poor decision. They were a team of volunteers, which often is an excellent way to form a team because everyone who joins is interested and committed. But unfortunately, none of the volunteers had expertise in fundraising strategy. Eager to move forward, they had initiated an email campaign with poor results. Unfortunately, no one had known to say, “Wait a minute. It’s not a good idea to send emails to people who are not familiar with our project asking for a donation without first building awareness and excitement about our project.”
2. Communication Channels Are Not Open
Leaders need to make it ok for people to voice their opinions and team members need to have the courage to speak up, or your team may tacitly approve bad decisions. Poor decisions occur when one or even a few team members have important information but aren’t heard because their style of communication is ineffective, because others are not listening, or because there is no means to communicate their concerns.
When information must pass through a chain of command, decision-makers don’t have direct access to those with expertise. Analysis of the Space Shuttle Challenge disaster revealed that engineers’ concerns about the O-rings were not communicated adequately as they were passed up the chain of command.
3. Unclear Decision Making Processes
When it is unclear how a decision will be made (whether by consensus, majority, or by the team leader) or when the decision is not put on the table, often the loudest voice carries the decision, not necessarily the wisest voice or even one that represents the best thinking of the team.
4. Succumbing to Time Pressure
We have all had the experience of being in a hurry and making a decision we later regret. The same thing can happen with teams. It’s important to be aware of the potential for bad decisions when under an intense deadline, and it needs to be okay for someone to raise a flag and call a timeout. A common practice for sports teams, all teams need to have a “timeout” norm in place.
5. Purpose is Unclear
Lack of understand why you are engaged in the project or activity, what results you are seeking or what success looks like will torpedo a team because there is nothing to guide decision-making. I recently worked with a company that had invested a significant amount of money in rolling out a training program in “mindfulness.” They had heard that Google and other companies were doing it and had decided to jump on the bandwagon. A year later, nothing was different in the company, and they decided that the program hadn’t been any good.
Looking into it, I discovered the program was actually a fine program. The real problem was the company didn’t have a clear reason for implementing it, and it wasn’t linked to a business strategy. Instead of selecting a program that sounded interesting, they should have first identified the business result they wanted to drive, and then selected a program that would support it.
6. Values Not Articulated
When the values are not articulated, individuals are left to their own devices to determine which values should guide them, which is the reason I fired my lawn service.
The Costa Concordia disaster occurred because the captain thought putting on a good show was more important than safety. This would never have occurred on a Disney cruise ship. Disney has articulated that their number one value is safety, and the show is their number two value. Their values are included in their orientation process and are embedded in their communication and accountability systems.
Groupthink occurs when the desire for harmony causes team members to withhold their good thinking. Irving Janus described how the pressure for consensus in the Kennedy administration led to the Bay of Pigs fiasco.
High performing teams are not afraid of conflict. Yesterday a colleague confided in me that he knew the team leader was making a bad decision, but he had already voiced his opinion once and was not going to push back on the decision. He felt it would jeopardize his relationship with the team leader.
Nice list Jesse. I think one big one not directly on this list is the lack of clear thinking about the project, task or result required on the part of the team leader-quality of execution can then suffer quite quickly.
Good point, Jon. It might be considered an an extension of clear purpose, but I agree that having a clear understanding about the project is essential. Often when execution fails, it can be directly traced back to poor decision-making while determining the strategy and plans.
I believe every team needs to start with understand each member’s communication style. Some of the best minds might be the most quiet- easily overshadowed by the loudest. Every team, if it doesn’t have a team leader, needs a process observer who can observe when the discussion does not include. I have also found it helpful, in decision making, to have one person play the devil’s advocate so that the team looks at all sides of the issue.
As always, Jesse, a great post.
Hi Eileen, These are excellent ways to ensure open communications. It is so important to understand and value not only each member’s communication style, but all of their differences so that diversity can be used to the team’s advantage. If everyone thinks alike, you don’t need a team for decision-making.
Thanks for sharing here, Eileen, and the unique perspective you always offer.
“….often the loudest voice carries the decision, not necessarily the wiset voice or even one that represents the best thinking of the team”.
I couldn’t agree more. Any similarity with most of the business meetings is not a mere coincidence. Great post!
Thanks, Sergio. It probably sounds similar to real business meetings because all the examples I used are from real experience. Here’s another real meeting you might recognize – No More Boring Meetings, Please! It’s funny in retrospect, although it wasn’t at the time.
I JUST tweeted about group think less then an hour ago! : )
Excellent points. Although it would be ‘ideal’ to have all the right members on a team, the upside (if the decision doesn’t result in an unrecoverable situation) is what can be learned from the experience. What you described in #1 about the email campaign is a great example. I’ve been in a similar situations.
Great post Jesse.
I completely agree with you, Samantha. It’s really important to have all the right members on the team so you build team strength. Having the all the important bases is important. And then, as Eileen points out, being able to capitalize on the strengths is the hallmark of a high performing team. The email campaign just happened last week. A huge disappointment and a lost opportunity.
Nice approach to exploring why things go wrong!
I’d add that it’s useful to normalize significant mistakes with the line, ‘Never let a good crisis go to waste’. It’s important that bad decisions don’t become blame-stroming. Instead, they should be seen as a constructive learning opportunity. The space shuttle Challenger is an excellent example where the scientists set about in a methodical way to unearth their learning. Scientists are trained to do this, (except when politics get in the way). Non-scientific teams (the rest of the world) need to be thoughtful about exploring problem causality as root-cause analysis of human behaviour / interactions can lead the learning down the wrong path.
Love that line! – “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” I appreciate your taking the message of my post a step further. My intent was to help teams prevent bad decisions by being alert to these factors. But mistakes will happen, as they always do, and then how we approach learning from them says a lot about the people and the strength of the team. Excellent distinction between the scientific approach vs the political approach!
Jesse, this is such a great post which touches on the key functional elements of a team, including communication and clarity of purpose. One thing I would add that can affect the items you mentioned greatly, is to have clarity of roles. When each person on a team understands their function in regards to the team’s greater purpose, and embraces their authority in the resulting role, communication has a better shot of opening and groupthink has less of one, ideally leading to better decisions. Thanks for an enlightening post.
Good point, Blair. Our research showed that having effective team processes (clarity of roles, goals, accountability, recognition, etc) is one of the 6 Benchmarks of High Performance Teams. Role clarity is especially important when it comes to decision-making around task accomplishment.
This is such a powerful post! A lot of it can be summed up by your last point, the perils of Groupthink. It’s something I rail against somewhat frequently in presentations and on Switch and Shift because it’s so prevalent and so deadly to an organization’s success. Each of your seven deadly points, though, packs its own whollop. Lack of vision? Lack of priorities? Not understanding how your team will make its decisions? Unfortunately, there is no shortage of this type of inept leadership out there.
…Well, it is fortunate indeed to one constituency: the competition 😉
and it provides a livelihood for people like us 🙂
Joking aside, I have to confess, I was a member of one of the teams I described in this post. None of us is immune, and as Alan Kay rightly pointed out, we need a recovery process in place so we can quickly regroup, learn and move forward. Sometimes you’re just too close to the situation to see you’re on the edge of the cliff. My hope in writing this post was to help people see the early warning signs sooner.
Thanks so much for stopping by Ted and sharing your insights here!
Great post, Jesse. I think you articulated the key problem areas.
Much thanks, Joy.
Excellent list and thinking, Jesse! Thanks for getting us all thinking.
One wonders if one might add an additional element that is implicit but not explicit here: leadership. The elements listed could, at least in theory, be grouped within the rubric of management. Yet that might highlight a gap.
The members of a team can each ensure that the hazards listed here are avoided–and they can be avoided–yet without effective leadership things may not come together in a high stakes situation.
Someone, somewhere has to be accountable and have unmistakable ‘skin in the game.’ That accountability should ideally be guided by judgment, experience, a larger perspective, and a service orientation.
Hi Jim, Your comments remind me that leadership is THE fundamental, common thread and that these kinds of situations arise from leadership failure – when leaders don’t listen (or don’t want to hear other views), when leaders are not paying attention to group dynamics, when leaders are not ensuring the right people are on the team or providing access to resources, or when leaders are not willing to share leadership. We know that one of the characteristics of high performance teams is that leadership is shared and arises naturally depending on what is needed. But teams don’t start out that way. If they don’t get the leadership and support they need, they will stall out. Much thanks for sharing your insights here!
The last point you made about a colleague of yours being unwilling to take a stronger stand really resonated with me…while group think is definitely alive and well, I tend to rethink my position when 1) I’ve already voiced opposition, and 2) I’m the only one in opposition. What I believe to be a bad decision is not shared with the other team members, even after I’ve voice my concerns. No one else has picked up on the consequences…so at some point, when does it become all about me?
On the other hand, If the warning was given by the team leader and no one is listening, I wonder how many other things are going unheard by his team?
Much thanks for sharing your thoughts and extending the conversation, LaRae. Of all the situations you described, I think the difficult situation to be in is when the team leader blocks your ability to share your thinking with the team. If you’ve had an opportunity to explain your position and your reasoning, then at least you’ve had a chance to affect the situation. In this particular situation a team member decided not to give feedback to the team leader because he felt the leader wouldn’t listen. That says something about the team leader. Too often leaders think they know what’s going on because of what they’re being told, when actually the most valuable information is what they’re NOT being told.
Good points, I would like to that in any decisions buy in of all team members is required. most often team leaders function in autocratic style which leads to bad decision making.
Indeed. When leaders make autocratic decisions without buy-in, they are likely to fail during implementation.
Who said “None of us is as smart as all of us?”
Not necessarily true if a team or group doesn’t know HOW to be smart together.
You capture many if not all of Priscilla Wohlstetter’s et al High Involvement model who identifies six variables that must be present for a decision making team to be effective.
Just read a book, Decisive, by Chip and Dan Heath that offers several safeguards to help ensure effective group decisions that also adds to the process.
Well said, Richard! Love your explanation of when that quote does not work. Just because a group of people are working together does not make them a team, and even if they are interdependent, it does not necessarily make them a smart team if they haven’t learned to how “to be smart together.” I appreciate your reference to the work of Priscilla Wohlstetter. The best school improvement efforts have always been grounded in high involvement processes, back to the Teacher Center movement in the 1980’s. Priscilla Wohlstetter’s high involvement model springs from the work of Ed Lawler, whose work we included in our own research on characteristics of high performance organizations. Guess what – high involvement is one of the 6 characteristics we identified. Thanks for your thoughts and extending the conversation, Richard.