Dissensus, not consensus, is the shorter but steeper path
Working around cognitive biases to improve decision making
Update 2021-04-05: I keep turning up pieces from the archives that many readers here may not have seen. This post was written in 2015, but stands up.
A week ago, I read a Adam Bryant interview with Bob Pittman of Clear Channel, the radio network, in which Pittman makes a case for a role for dissent as a triangulation tool. He was talking about his early days as a new manager, and how he countered the natural suspicions of those older than him by actively encouraging people to present opposing views, and how that shaped his current approach:
Often in meetings, I will ask people when we’re discussing an idea, “What did the dissenter say?” The first time you do that, somebody might say, “Well, everybody’s on board.” Then I’ll say, “Well, you guys aren’t listening very well, because there’s always another point of view somewhere and you need to go back and find out what the dissenting point of view is.” I don’t want to hear someone say after we do something, “Oh, we should have done this.”
I want us to listen to these dissenters because they may intend to tell you why we can’t do something, but if you listen hard, what they’re really telling you is what you must do to get something done. It gets you out of your framework of the conventions of what you can and can’t do.
Pittman’s grass roots embrace of dissent is only the starting point of its utility, and its central role in the evolving laissez-faire management thinking behind a new way of work.
I want us to listen to these dissenters because they may intend to tell you why we can’t do something, but if you listen hard, what they’re really telling you is what you must do to get something done.
| Bob Pittman
Note that the heading ‘the shorter path’ is based on one of the paradoxes of computing, that algorithms that do more work at the outset generally wind-up being more efficient. Dissent is like that. Avoiding the comfortable traps of groupthink and the cognitive biases that herd us into consensus too quickly is hard work, but leads to better results, we will see.
Ulrich Klocke researched causes of poor group decision making in How to Improve Decision Making in Small Groups: Effects of Dissent and Training Interventions. First, groups may fail to process information effectively: for example, not sharing information that may be relevant for various reasons, or giving some information only a cursory examination. Secondly, certain well-known cognitive biases can lead groups to poor results, particularly bias in favor of shared information (information known to many in the group), and a bias in favor of initial preferences (people get stuck on what initially occurs to them, and are hard to unstick).
As Klocke wrote about the sharedness bias –
Groups communicate predominantly about information, which all or most group members share before entering the discussion, and neglect unshared information, which only one or few members have initially.
[…] group members individually judge shared information as more important, relevant, accurate, and influential than unshared information. This bias seems to have two reasons: First, shared information can be confirmed by more than one group member. Second, individuals evaluate their own information as more valid than information from other members. Thus, unshared information, even if mentioned in the discussion, is not seriously considered by other group members and therefore has less impact on the final decision than shared information.
– and later, about the preference bias –
Even when all information necessary to identify the correct solution is exchanged during discussion, individual group members often stick to their initially preferred wrong solution. People bias their information processing to favor an initially preferred alternative. Other studies show the same phenomenon at the group level: Group decisions can often be predicted by the initial preferences of its members. If a majority favors a certain alternative before the discussion, the group seldom decides to chose another alternative. Thus, frequently, group discussions are superfluous, and groups would be better off using a decision shortcut like an immediate vote or an averaging procedure.
Klocke has cataloged a litany of cognitive barriers to effective group decision making, and — spoiler alert — the research he conducted supported these biases as being present in his experimental groups, as well as those he cites from the literature. [Note: All citations left out of these quotes.]
Perhaps the worst news is that simply letting people know about these biases is not enough to counter their impact on group behavior. One thing, however, can positively change decision-making: dissent.
Frequently, group discussions are superfluous, and groups would be better off using a decision shortcut like an immediate vote or an averaging procedure. — Ulrich Klocke
The impacts of dissent are positive both at the group and individual level. As Klocke outlined,
[…] early field studies analyzed the effects of groupthink, a tendency for concurrence seeking that effectively suppresses the expression of dissent. They found evidence that groupthink can have detrimental effects on group decisions. […] These experiments showed that dissent (compared to consent) enhances decision-making quality, even when no group member favors the correct solution before the discussion. This effect was mediated predominantly by more systematic processing of information but also by less biased processing of information. Specifically, dissent led to the introduction and repetition of more information and to a more balanced discussion of shared and unshared and preference-consistent and inconsistent information.
With regard to individual behavior in the context of dissent:
There is evidence for more systematic processing by individuals after being exposed to divergent opinions. One factor that mobilizes systematic processing is surprise or a deviation from expectancy. Usually, divergent opinions are unexpected and therefore cause surprise and mobilize cognitive resources to explain the unexpected event. In addition, it has been demonstrated that dissent, especially when articulated by a consistent minority, promotes divergent thinking, a variable related to unbiased processing.
Klocke went on to test whether interventions in group activities — telling them groups about the various biases, but not actually introducing systematic efforts toward dissent — and discovered they don’t have much of an effect. Simply knowing that bias is likely does not counter bias.
On the other hand, the findings regarding dissent are powerful and demonstrate a maxim: the more important a decision, the broader the diversity of opinions that should be sought to apply to the decision, and the greater the attention to active and comprehensive dissent.
A premortem in a business setting comes at the beginning of a project rather than the end, so that the project can be improved rather than autopsied. — Gary Klein
Bob Pittman’s real-world experience is borne out by the experimental evidence. I think one of the best approaches to inserting dissent is to use project premortems which extends Pittman’s search for dissent at the outset. As described by Gary Klein, a premortem
is the hypothetical opposite of a postmortem. A postmortem in a medical setting allows health professionals and the family to learn what caused a patient’s death. Everyone benefits except, of course, the patient. A premortem in a business setting comes at the beginning of a project rather than the end, so that the project can be improved rather than autopsied. Unlike a typical critiquing session, in which project team members are asked what might go wrong, the premortem operates on the assumption that the “patient” has died, and so asks what did go wrong. The team members’ task is to generate plausible reasons for the project’s failure.
Klein seems to have grasped the biases that tend to push people toward groupthink, and his approach counters them. Sometime after everyone has been brought up to speed on the plan, a premortem is held.
The facilitator starts by saying the project has failed ‘spectacularly’.
Each person writes down — privately — every reason they can think of for that failure, and as Klein says, ‘especially the kinds of things they ordinarily wouldn’t mention as potential problems, for fear of being impolitic’.
In a round-robin, the facilitator gets one reason from each team member, who reads it aloud, and it is recorded, until all reasons are covered.
Discussion can be as deep or as shallow as the facilitator needs.
After the meeting, the facilitator and team leader can refine the list, and respond with an action plan to resolve issues, and then reconvene the team to make decisions on ways to revise the project plan or approach.
This intentionally sidesteps the sharedness and preference biases to at least a reasonable degree and also can increase the deviation from the expected, given that a diverse set of viewpoints are brought into the premortem.
The biggest takeaways? We have deep cognitive biases that negatively impact group decision-making, especially when group decision-making is not structured to counter those biases, and does not exploit the value of dissent and diversity. Techniques like premortems are one tool to help increase the leverage that dissent offers, and avoid the soft pitfalls of groupthink and unwarranted consensus.