Knowledge Center: Article

Accelerating Leaders

Lacking innovation? Groupthink may be to blame

4/3/2017 Steven Krupp

The 2008–2009 financial crisis, increased regulation, and other changing conditions have led to unprecedented levels of uncertainty. In this environment, leaders and companies have become risk-averse—so it’s no surprise that their growth and innovation are waning. However, the stagnancy resulting from avoiding risks and tough decisions can be even more dangerous than taking chances with traditional “risk” or investment. In reality, this “comfort zone” will not be so comfortable when competitors forge ahead, innovate, adapt to better serve customers, and leave the laggards in the dust.

When leaders and teams lack a robust decision-making process, groupthink—a common bias in which team members conform to a prevailing view—often takes hold. Groupthink limits imaginations, impedes unconventional thinking, and leads team members to stop the productive challenging of ideas that often leads to better thinking. Teams affected by groupthink tend to stay in a “safe zone” and are dominated by one or two strong opinion leaders. They lack the capacity for innovation and strategic thinking.

To combat groupthink in their teams, leaders can employ a few tips or ground rules:

  • Designate a set “devil’s advocate” role to present contrarian viewpoints and inject debate into team meetings; some teams assign one or two members to actually research a contrarian view and set up a debate.
  • Introduce a peer review process where team leaders from other teams evaluate the output or decisions of a group and suggest alternate options.
  • To promote creative thinking, ask team members to submit several different ideas prior to a meeting. Then, at the meeting, introduce each idea for discussion without attributing it to any team member.
  • Conduct a “what if” exercise in which the team looks at several possible future scenarios (for example, in which the price of natural gas goes up or down) and explores which decisions or innovations would hold up best under these circumstances.
  • Develop a set of options for any team decision. Build in time to debate the options and their likely impact and feasibility. “Options thinking” is an antidote to groupthink because it forces the team to consider multiple choices before settling on one.
  • Build “nudge strategies”1 that encourage risk and innovative thinking within the team. Hold team members accountable for coming up with “higher-risk” ideas, which should be presented to the team lead on a regular basis.

Groupthink can stifle innovation. However, leaders can jumpstart growth efforts and creative thinking with their teams by identifying where and how groupthink is tainting the decision-making process—and taking action to inspire progressive thinking.

About the author

Steven Krupp ( is a partner in Heidrick & Struggles’ Philadelphia office and a member of the Leadership Consulting Practice.


1 See Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein, Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness, New York: Penguin Books, 2009.

Steven Krupp Partner +1 610.7171000

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