Thursday, January 15, 2009


One of our favorite mistakes is "groupthink" as a synonym for "brainstorming."

We at Arrowhead Management are wordsmiths. We love words.

And, so it especially pains us when we hear Development Professionals who insist on misusing words.

We can't tell you the name of this former colleague who made this mistake incessantly, but suffice it to say that the alumni association of this nonprofit was so horrified that we all came together as a team to pen this article.

Brainstorm means:

A group creative process designed to generate

a large number of ideas to solve a problem.

Groupthink means:

When group members try to

minimize conflict and reach consensus

without critically testing, analyzing and evaluating ideas.

Examples of groupthink: Space Shuttle Challenger, Bay of Pigs Invasion and Operation Iraqi Freedom

Our guess is that destruction isn't what the nonprofit had in mind when "groupthink" was suggested.

Yet, the concept of groupthink is important for nonprofits to understand. When problems are brought to a group for discussion, it's vital that dissenting ideas be fully analyzed.

This isn't to marginalize the maximization of Kum Ba Yah moments in the nonprofit sector, but any solution worth pursuing should be fully vetted by stakeholders before it's implemented.

The sad irony of groupthink is that it usually happens when an organization's senior management doesn't suggest it as an outcome. It happens when an organization's culture values consensus over performance and outcomes.

Since nonprofits are accustomed to collaborating with external and internal partners to accomplish our work – often stretching thin dollars across a broad social problem – it can be challenging to eradicate consensus-based analysis to problem solving.

And, yes, we know that sometimes the impact we are seeking doesn't always lend itself to quantifiable outcomes (though we at Arrowhead Management think all outcomes can be...)

But, healthy debate and disagreement in the early phases of problem-solving minimizes roadblocks down the line.

So, the next time your colleague offers countering opinions to your ideas or the organization's conventional wisdom, don't take it as a personal attack. Don't characterize that person as "not being a team player."

Take this feedback as a signal that your idea needs to be vigorously explored further to ensure that the most appropriate solution to the problem at hand is found.

If your nonprofit is prone to groupthink, try this: create a time frame during which any criticism of ideas (not people) is mandated.

And, please – we're begging you – remember, the next time you want your team to bring bunches of fresh ideas to a meeting, ask them to "brainstorm" independently for 10 minutes.

Don't ask them to "do some groupthink."