Navigating Groupthink: A Founder's Guide to Informed Decision-Making

Don't surround yourself with people who say yes all the time. Groupthink in startups stifles diverse ideas, risking success


Chris Kernaghan

A group of people, sit around discussing a product launch

Have you been part of a team or group where you felt pushed to do something, and it turned out to be a bad choice? If so, you and your teammates might have experienced something called Groupthink.

Groupthink refers to a phenomenon where a group of individuals prioritise consensus and harmony over critical thinking and independent analysis. This desire for agreement within the group can lead to flawed decision-making, as dissenting opinions are suppressed or ignored.

In the context of a startup, groupthink can have significant implications for both the founder and the team.

For founders, groupthink can pose a danger because it might discourage them from seeking diverse perspectives on their ideas or business strategies. When everyone around them is in agreement, founders might miss out on valuable constructive criticism or alternative viewpoints that could ultimately lead to better decisions.

Groupthink is much more likely to happen if your affinity bias goes unchecked. Affinity bias is when we unconsciously favour people who are similar to us in some way, whether it's in terms of background, experiences, or viewpoints. This can lead to a lack of diverse perspectives and hinder the open exchange of ideas within a team or group.

Let's check out a few instances of groupthink - how many of these have you found yourself caught up in?

Examples of Groupthink

The effects of groupthink can ripple through different aspects of your business. If you're a founder, you're in the driving seat when it comes to minimising this and any potential influence groupthink might have over your team. I've found the best way to tackle this is head on.

Working as lead designer for several businesses, looking after teams small and large, fostering an environment where diverse viewpoints are encouraged and critical thinking is valued. People should always feel comfortable speaking their mind, especially if they have a dissenting viewpoint!

If not, it's unlikely you, your team or your business will grow in any meaningful way. To avoid that, here's 10 different situations where groupthink can creep in:

  1. New Product Launch: In the excitement of creating a new product, a team may become so aligned in their enthusiasm that they overlook potential flaws. Without thorough market research and critical evaluation, they might miss key features that customers actually need, resulting in a product that fails to gain traction.
  2. Funding Strategy: When founders and investors are in a rush to secure funding, they might hastily agree on a financing strategy without seeking external perspectives. By failing to consider alternative options or expert advice, the startup could end up with terms that aren't favourable or miss out on more suitable funding sources.
  3. Hiring Decisions: If a startup's team members share similar backgrounds and viewpoints, they may unconsciously gravitate toward hiring individuals who mirror their own experiences. This lack of diversity can limit the team's ability to innovate and adapt to a rapidly changing market. See affinity bias.
  4. Scaling Approach: Blindly following a scaling strategy that worked for other companies might ignore the startup's unique challenges and strengths. This approach could lead to inefficient resource allocation or missed opportunities for growth.
  5. Ignoring Red Flags: A culture of avoiding confrontation could lead to ignoring warning signs about a potential problem. By not addressing these issues promptly, the startup risks facing severe consequences down the line.
  6. Tech Stack Selection: Choosing a popular tech stack without evaluating its suitability for the startup's specific needs might result in unnecessary complexity or limitations in the product's development.
  7. Strategic Direction: If the founder's vision dominates discussions, it might discourage team members from suggesting alternative strategies. This can limit the startup's ability to adapt to changing market conditions.
  8. Product Design: Designing a product without seeking input from potential users can lead to a product that doesn't address user needs or preferences. This can result in low user adoption and poor customer satisfaction.
  9. Market Trends: Dismissing a potential market trend based on personal opinions rather than data can cause the startup to miss out on emerging opportunities.
  10. Competition Analysis: Underestimating a competitor's capabilities due to overconfidence can leave the startup unprepared for competitive pressures, potentially leading to loss of market share.

Remember: Within a startup team, groupthink can stifle creativity and innovation.

If folks within the the team are hesitant to voice their concerns or suggest new ideas because they fear rocking the boat, there's a good chance the company will miss out on opportunities for growth and improvement. Groupthink can also reinforce a sense of complacency, preventing the team from identifying and addressing potential challenges or risks.

Ready to fight the good fight against groupthink? Here's 7 actionable points to help you create a workplace were healthy debate is encouraged:

  1. Encourage Diverse Voices: Actively seek input from team members with different backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives. This can help expose blind spots and lead to well-rounded decisions.
  2. Create a Safe Environment: Foster an open culture where team members feel comfortable expressing dissenting opinions without fear of backlash. This can promote healthy debate and critical thinking.
  3. Devil's Advocate Role: Assign someone to play the role of a devil's advocate during discussions. This encourages the team to consider alternative viewpoints and potential drawbacks.
  4. External Input: Seek advice from external mentors, advisors, or industry experts who can provide unbiased opinions and challenge conventional thinking.
  5. Anonymous Feedback: Implement mechanisms for team members to provide feedback anonymously. This can be particularly useful for addressing sensitive topics.
  6. Rotate Leadership: Rotate leadership roles within the team to prevent one person's perspective from dominating decision-making.
  7. Encourage Independent Research: Encourage team members to independently research and validate assumptions before making decisions.

If you're a founder, you'll no doubt be sick of hearing that adaptability and innovation are key. But the thing is, this is a fundamental truth. In order to survive against competitors with deeper pockets, you need to be able to look somewhere else.

You can make incredible leeway just by embracing diversity, placing priority on other perspectives and encouraging open dialogue. By actively avoiding the pitfalls of groupthink, founders can create a dynamic environment that nurtures creativity, minimises risks, and leads to more informed and effective choices.

Having worked with several startups in the past, I can confirm, those that subscribed to the notion of groupthink don't exist anymore. Don't be afraid to embrace dissent - it will serve you much better in the long run.

About The Author

A group of people, sit around discussing a product launch
Chris Kernaghan

By day, Chris works as a UX Designer, crafting easy-to-use interfaces and ensuring companies focus on what users need. At night, he runs We Are Founders, a platform where founders share inspirational journeys.


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