Group Think: Why Risk Management failure is inevitable

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Group Think: Why Risk Management failure is inevitable


Everyone fails on occasion but why do really smart people fail to recognize what appear to be obvious errors in judgment?  On April 1961, President Kennedy famously asked, “How could we be so stupid?”  What was the occasion for this retrospective question?  President Kennedy approved the ill-fated Bay of Pigs mission to send 1,400 CIA trained Cuban exiles to overthrown President Fidel Castro of Cuba. 

Many of Kennedy’s closest advisers would later say that they did not believe the plan would work nor did they think that Fidel Castro’s control over Cuba could be challenged by these mercenaries.  So why did President Kennedy approve such a poorly devised plan?   Why didn’t Kennedy’s advisers’ Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, or Arthur Schlesinger Jr, Special Assistant to the President speak up about their concerns? 

Everyone wrongly assumed consensus. 

Fast forward to our modern day debate about the launch and roll-out of the Affordable Care Act (“ObamaCare”) and website.  President Obama’s press conference to apology to the American people sounded a lot like President Kennedy’s more sync “How could we be so stupid?”

Group think is a very powerful yet subtle mistake we are all subject to make.   It is inevitable that we will find ourselves in situations where a group has formed an opinion or made a decision without robust debate or listen to dissenting views.  Households, corporations, and even governments make this mistake and the consequences can be devastating on occasion.   Consider the 2008 toxic mortgage debacle!

We all recognize the symptoms of group think.  It starts with a lack of clarity of mission or outcome of the project followed by superficial details to accomplish the goal.  We feel it in the pit of our stomachs yet we are afraid to challenge the assumptions because they were derived from well-paid international consulting firms or expert advisers to senior management.  There are times when we can clearly see “The Emperor has no Clothes”! 

The short tale by Hans Christian Andersen is about two weavers who promise their new Emperor the finest, best suit of clothes from a fabric invisible to anyone who is unfit for his position or hopelessly stupid.  The Emperor’s ministers cannot see the clothing themselves, but pretend that they can for fear of appearing unfit for their positions and the Emperor does the same.  As the Emperor parades before his loyal subjects a young child proclaims, “But he isn’t wearing anything at all!”

It is said that President Kennedy asked each of his advisers in the meeting their thoughts on the Bay of Pigs invasion with the exception of the one person he knew had misgivings about the mission.  Does that ever happen in your meetings?  Do we tune out the dissenters or naysayers? 

President Kennedy wanted to learn from his mistake and asked former President Dwight Eisenhower how he could avoid the same miscues in preparation for the Cuban missile crisis.  Eisenhower’s simple advice is summarized as, “you need spirited debate”. 

It takes a great deal of courage and leadership to allow for debate and disagreement while listening to all sides before forming an opinion.  This small investment may allow time for the simplicity of the message from the young child in the crowd to come through loud and clear.  “But (he) isn’t wearing anything at all”!

The impulse to listen to the “experts” is overwhelming when the odds are high and failure appears to have dire consequences.  It is in these times that one must look beyond the numbers and analysis to listen to the coherence of the arguments on both sides.  Then make the most informed decision you can.

Sounds simple?  Here is your mental check list.

·         Understand why dissenters disagree – is it fact or experience based or fear

·         Does consensus mean agreement?  What won the argument; informed responses or the loudest voice?

·         Are you really convinced?  Don’t overlook your own intuition!

·         What are the consequences if you are wrong?  Minimize failure.

Be the child……

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