How to Prevent Group Think from Highjacking Meetings at Work

It’s hilarious that it’s taken me 32 years to learn just how blissfully unaware I was of my backend.

No, not my ass, but the stuff that goes on in my subconscious.

Between 9th grade (when I started enjoying learning) and completing college, I was living under the impression that soaking up knowledge, binge-watching powerful documentaries and reading important books brought me closer to my higher self.

Little did I know that was only occasionally true

In his book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman explains that our conscious mind is in charge of analytical thinking. 

But it’s also sometimes busy, mostly starving, and often lazy.

And despite believing otherwise, we’re mostly running on autopilot, following the rules made by our subconscious.

After that realisation, you can’t continue living the same way, can you?

Not when you’re determined to get better at #adulting. And I believe that a big part of being an adult has better judgement.

That’s especially important when you’re responsible for making decisions that can impact the careers of hundreds of people

Our judgement is seriously fickle.

And remarkably so when based on memories or when we’re under pressure.

It’s safe to say that most management positions check both boxes.

Here are a couple of heuristics that are especially harmful to decision making at work.

Finding causality without evidence

Kahneman explains that our subconscious keeps track of what’s ‘normal’ by linking events, actions and outcomes that mostly happen simultaneously. 

I’m allergic to tomatoes, and after several decades of bloating and nausea, I associate tomatoes with digestive issues.

Associative memory (tomatoes = nausea) bypass critical thinking, leading me to find causality where it doesn’t exist. 

It means that I’m more likely to believe that tomato soup is a horrible food without ever having tried it.

How many animals did Moses take into his ark?

Two of each kind, right?

According to Kahneman, most people skip to the answer without noticing the error in the question itself. 

Moses didn’t build the ark. Noah did.

But when you know the story and remember that Moses and Noah are biblical characters, your subconscious skips the critical thinking bit.

This happens all the time, and we’re mostly oblivious to it.

We analyse to confirm what we already believe, not to disprove it

We like it when we’re right. And most of the time, we’re only looking for information that proves we’re right.

It’s called Positive Test Strategy, and it’s how our conscious mind works.

When uncertain, we like to bet on an answer that’s most likely to be true.

Our intuition (or gut feeling) is often correct.

And that’s where things get tricky because even the best of us have only limited experiences in life.

So, when making sense of anything new, we work backwards, starting with comparing what we don’t know with what we do know.

Despite our best efforts, our experiences are limited.

And relying on associative memory alone leads us to confirmation bias and the halo effect.

We don’t need much information before jumping to conclusions.

I also learnt of it from Thinking, Fast and Slow.

Here’s Alan and Ben, what do you think of them?

Alan: Intelligent – Industrious – Impulsive – Critical – Stubborn – Envious

Ben: Envious – Stubborn – Critical – Impulsive – Industrious – Intelligent

In most experiments, people believed that Alan’s stubbornness is justified because he’s an intelligent person. But Ben’s intelligence makes him dangerous because he’s envious and stubborn.

Knowing nothing more than simply reading an identical list of adjectives, first in one order and then in another, is enough to convince us that Ben is a Bond villain.

Associative memory creates a story that’s safe and familiar. But it doesn’t care much for the accuracy of data available to us.

And worse, an essential feature of associative memory is that it can only use what we remember. Anything else may as well not exist.

Our shared biases multiply our lapse in judgement

We are our biases. There’s no running away from it.

And our biases multiply when we’re working together.

That’s why they don’t interview witnesses to a crime at the same time in the same place.

As Kahneman explains, “Allowing the observers to influence each other effectively reduces the size of the sample, and with it, the precision of the group estimate.”

We feel confident when we believe in the consistency of the stories we tell ourselves.

And our biases add the illusion of completeness by plastering over the gaps.

But that’s not how we solve problems at work

At work, we solve problems in lengthy meetings with half distracted people working with incomplete data.

We can’t leave our biases at the door, but we can keep them in check.

One way to do that is by asking people to write down pre-meeting memos.

It can be a summary of their point of view on an important issue before its openly discussed.

Asking your colleagues to share their thoughts in a meeting before a decision needs to be made doesn’t remove their personal biases, but it prevents Group Think from highjacking your meeting.

How to Foster Curiosity to Inspire Innovation at Work

Innovation is hard work. 

The side of innovation that we read about in books and magazines is the superstar CEO and their genius inventors chugging away at changing the world.

It pushes the reality of innovation past our cognitive horizon. 

But true innovation is much more complicated than that.

What we don’t see is the intolerance for mediocrity, high personal accountability, and disciplined leadership.

How much money you have to throw at R&D has little to do with innovation.

And while leadership matters, having brave leaders doesn’t improve your odds of success by itself.

Being curious does.

Curiosity is essential for innovation.

When Steve Jobs unveiled the iPhone, he only spent six seconds talking about the camera.

Since then, Apple has been raising the bar for camera technology and the photography industry. 

The chicken wire case:

In 2009 Apple wanted to introduce a new portrait mode with bokeh, a pleasing blurred background effect.

Offering that feature required building new technology.

Their first attempts at it were successful. But they also produced a handful of unexpected ‘failures’.

One such failure was the ‘chicken wire case’.

It was an edge case where if the person taking the picture was standing behind a chicken wire, the algorithm couldn’t capture a sharp image of the chicken wire to the side of the face.

Despite being an edge case, the engineers brought in senior designers and professional portrait photographers to understand what makes a portrait beautiful.

They learned that all great portrait photos had blurring around the face but sharpness on the eyes.

And the team was able to improve their algorithm to achieve the same effect.

It takes curiosity to reject accepting the difficulty of a problem as an excuse for failing to produce a better solution.

You may not have the budget, or the technology, or the engineering prowess of Apple. 

But you do have curiosity. And that’s essential for innovation.

Curiosity is a rare trait in organisations.

Companies view curiosity as a catalyst for high job satisfaction and performance.

In fact, in a survey of more than 3000 professionals, 92% believed that curious people bring new ideas to their teams and organisations.

Yet, most companies actively discourage curiosity, believing that it would be harder to manage people if they started exploring their interests.

It’s not surprising that people who start new jobs brimming with new ideas experience a sharp decline in curiosity after only six months on the job.

Sadly, our training for accepting the status quo starts much sooner.

Did you know that a typical three-year-old child asks one question every two minutes? 

And that rate drops to less than one question every two hours after they start school. 

We stop asking questions when we’re under pressure and get on with it. 

Teach yourself to be more curious.

It starts with asking questions.

Out of 3000 employees in a multi-industry study, 70% felt they face barriers to asking questions at work.

The scariest barrier to asking questions is the fear of getting judged as stupid or incompetent.

And it’s worse for people in leadership positions who often feel that they need to have all the answers.

I bet this isn’t the first time you’ve heard that the opposite is true. But deciding to start asking more questions isn’t the answer.

Start with humility. It’s the most underrated leadership skill.

You don’t have all the answers. And that’s okay.

Being the first one to recognise the limits of your knowledge sends a powerful message to others.

It says that you’re ready to explore, to learn.

That act alone is often enough to get others feeling comfortable around you.

Tenelle Porter called intellectual humility the ability to acknowledge that what we know is sharply limited.

And people with more intellectual humility perform better. 

Because once you accept that your knowledge is finite, you’re more likely to pay attention to how the world is changing and see new possibilities.

Curiosity and empathy go hand in hand.

Asking questions is the best way to show interest in others. 

It’s the best way to get people to like you, see you as more competent, and build deeper relationships.

Listen more and talk less.

You can ask explorative questions (what, who, where, when and how) that help others gain a deeper understanding of whatever they’re working on. 

It’s far more rewarding to empower people to find a solution themselves than giving them a half-baked solution.

Forget performance goals and set learning goals instead.

Nothing kills curiosity quicker than busyness.

Despite what we tell ourselves, we’re no better.

When it’s crunch time, we narrow our focus on what’s immediate and pick the path of least resistance. 

It’s natural to concentrate on results in the face of tough challenges.

Start framing your work around learning goals instead of completion goals. This will also help you break challenging demands into more manageable learning tasks.

Try it yourself.

Once you flip that switch where you stop getting excited by checking things off your to-do list, you’ll not only grow in skill; you’ll also do better with problem-solving and experience higher job satisfaction.

Because when you’re curious, you think more deeply and rationally, avoid biases, and come up with more creative solutions.

And small changes in how you interact with others can help you be more curious and encourage the same behaviour in return.

How One Brave Manager can Turn Around the Fate of Their Organisation

I’ve worked as a business manager for most of my professional life. 

And I’ve learnt to follow these two principles about productivity and performance:

  1. Measuring performance by activity leads to overwork at the same time as your most important work remains undone.
  2. Any available time that doesn’t get re-allocated will fall back into the black hole.

Organisations don’t follow the laws of physics, but if they did, these two rules would make the cut.

Because ignoring these principles is the same as expecting to fill a bathtub without plugging the drain first.

But all waste happens for a reason.

Only 15% of employees know their companies most important goals. And even fewer are clear on how to reach them.

This was one of the insights that led to the 4 Disciplines of Execution.

I’ve seen senior leaders get confounded when they experience it in their organisations.

Usually, it elicits cries of frustration and defeat: “How can people not know that?!” or “Have I failed at making it clear?!”

But there’s a simple reason behind it called: Busyness as a proxy for productivity.

Cal Newport explains, “In the absence of clear indicators to what it means to be productive and valuable in their jobs, many knowledge workers turn back toward an industrial indicator of productivity: doing lots of things in a visible manner.”

You’re as guilty of it as I am.

What hardworking and self-respecting person doesn’t want to be a valuable member of their team?

But when you don’t know which activities are valuable, you end up doing everything.

What causes success, and how do you know you’re winning?

Behind every successful company, there are ambitious people. And the same is true of a company that’s struggling.

The difference is in what you decide to focus your energy on.

Because how you decide to spend your time says more about your ambitions than all your strategy decks put together.

I believe that a business can’t grow in value unless its people are growing in skill.

And battling overwork with a simultaneous loss of productivity is a one-way ticket to the bottom.

The good news: you can change your course right now.

Behind every successful company, there are people who decide to do things differently.

The first step is to identify your most valuable work by questioning your value to your clients.

Why does your business make money?

And when was the last time someone asked you that question?

Compared to the times you’ve wondered how your business makes money or how your competitors make money, I mean.

By asking ‘how’, you’re only evaluating the tools and processes that help you do your job.

But by asking ‘why’, you’re questioning your value and your reason to exist.

And that can be a powerful exercise for a manager.

Try it yourself:

Ask yourself this question and write down 3 to 5 reasons that you come up with.

Now ask the same question from your boss and colleagues.

Different people will give you different answers, but you should be able to identify 2 – 3 things common in all the answers you get.

I would be concerned if you don’t manage to find a common thread.

How many people are directly engaged in these activities?

The next step is to check how many people (in your team or across your company) are directly involved in these activities.

They must do it as their primary job, and that’s how their performance is measured.

Avoid generalising or finding anecdotal links.

Doing this exercise will tell you:

  • which activities and behaviours make you more valuable to your clients,
  • how many people are intentionally involved in those activities, and
  • where and what types of gaps you need to fill.

Without answers to these questions, you didn’t have much chance to get out of the downward spiral of loss of productivity and overwork.

At this point, things get much more straightforward.

The next step is to take resources away from low-value work and shift it to more high-value work.

Remember the second rule: all freed up productivity will get sucked in by the black hole unless you reinvest it into another activity.

Now you know what your most important or valuable work looks like.

Help people optimise or automate repetitive or other low-value work and invest that productivity into more high-value work. In my opinion, training people or upskilling them also falls in the high-value work category.

Pay extra attention to describing the new task, set clear lead measures, and set a deadline for completing it.