Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 14, Issue 17;   April 23, 2014: Design Errors and Group Biases

Design Errors and Group Biases

by

Design errors can cause unwanted outcomes, but they can also lead to welcome surprises. The causes of many design errors are fundamental attributes of the way groups function. Here is Part II of our exploration.
Eugene F. Kranz, flight director, at his console on May 30, 1965, in the Control Room in the Mission Control Center at Houston

Eugene F. Kranz, flight director, at his console on May 30, 1965, in NASA's Control Room in the Mission Control Center at Houston. The photo was taken during a simulation in preparation for a four-day, 62-orbit flight designated Gemini-Titan IV. After the Apollo I accident, in which three astronauts (Virgil I. "Gus" Grissom, Edward H. White II, and Roger B. Chaffee) were killed in a fire, Kranz convened a meeting in Mission Control and delivered a speech to controllers that subsequently became a part of NASA culture. He said, in part: "From this day forward, Flight Control will be known by two words: Tough and Competent. Tough means we are forever accountable for what we do or what we fail to do. We will never again compromise our responsibilities… Competent means we will never take anything for granted… Mission Control will be perfect. … These words are the price of admission to the ranks of Mission Control." No subsequent Apollo mission sustained loss of life.

By overlaying these standards on Mission Control culture, Kranz succeeded in disabling the mechanisms of group bias discussed here. He demanded that group members hold themselves personally accountable for the actions of the group.

Photo courtesy U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

In Part I of this examination of design errors, we noted that the consequences of design errors are sometimes favorable. We also explored groupthink and considered an example of how groupthink can lead to design errors. Groupthink is an example of a group bias — an attribute of the way groups function that can often lead to results that differ from the group's intentions.

Many group biases have been identified, and to the extent that they produce results at variance with group intentions, they can all lead to design errors that produce unexpected and unintended results. Here are three of them.

Group polarization
Group polarization is the tendency of groups to adopt positions more extreme than any of their members would adopt if acting individually. The phenomenon is consistent with a normalization effect that can occur when group members learn that the sense of the group is in general alignment with their own inclinations. Members then feel free to abandon reluctance and doubt with respect to their private judgments, and the result is a "hardening" of those judgments. More
For groups making design decisions, group polarization can suppress interest in alternatives, and any desire to search for or explore rare but important use cases. It can also lead to outright rejection of perfectly workable designs — a form of design error not often noticed, because rejected designs typically are not implemented.
Pluralistic ignorance
In pluralistic ignorance, group members privately reject a position, while they simultaneously and incorrectly believe that almost everyone else accepts it. They decline to voice objections because they feel that doing so is pointless, or because they misinterpret the positions of other group members. More
For example, consider a design that forthrightly concedes that it does not address a well-defined need of the customer population. All of the members of the group might have misgivings about failing to address the issue, but the group adopts the design anyway because all members believe (erroneously) that the others favor it.
Abilene paradox
Closely related to pluralistic Many group biases have been identified,
and to the extent that they produce
results at variance with group intentions,
they can all lead to design errors
ignorance, the Abilene paradox applies when members of a group agree to go along with a group decision despite their private misgivings, mostly because of unpleasant imaginings of what the group might say or do if the member were to be honest about his or her misgivings. More
For example, a group can reach a design decision that none of its members support, because all of its members imagine that serious conflict — possibly threatening the group's ability to work together — would erupt if they were to express their honest objections to the proposed design.

Although all of these biases (and others) can lead groups to decisions their members do not support, the results can actually be positive. Some groups do well in spite of themselves. It's rare, but it happens. First in this series  Go to top Top  Next issue: Office Automation  Next Issue

303 Secrets of Workplace PoliticsIs every other day a tense, anxious, angry misery as you watch people around you, who couldn't even think their way through a game of Jacks, win at workplace politics and steal the credit and glory for just about everyone's best work including yours? Read 303 Secrets of Workplace Politics, filled with tips and techniques for succeeding in workplace politics. More info

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenrZPTMeiPthwxibOhner@ChacLARywgSTrDMyKPQroCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Problem Solving and Creativity:

A wrecked boatShould I Keep Bailing or Start Plugging the Leaks?
When we're flooded with problems, and the rowboat is taking on water, we tend to bail with buckets, rather than take time out to plug the leaks. Here are some tips for dealing with floods of problems.
Artist's drawing of a pterosaurLearning
What have you learned today? What has enriched you, changed your understanding of the world, or given you a new view of history or the future? Learning something new every day is a worthy goal.
Captain Robert F. Scott and most of his team returning from the South PoleProject Improvisation and Risk Management
When reality trips up our project plans, we improvise or we replan. When we do, we create new risks and render our old risk plans obsolete. Here are some suggestions for managing risks when we improvise.
The Satir Interaction Model as simplified by WeinbergManaging Wishful Thinking Risk
When things go wrong, and we look back at how we got there, we must sometimes admit to wishful thinking. Here's a framework for managing the risk of wishful thinking.
Brendan Nyhan and Jason ReiflerWishful Significance: Part I
When things don't work out, and we investigate why, we sometimes attribute our misfortune to "wishful thinking." In this part of our exploration of wishful thinking we examine how we arrive at mistaken assessments of the significance of what we see, hear, or learn.

See also Problem Solving and Creativity and Project Management for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Balancing talk time and the value of the contributionComing March 29: Virtual Blowhards
Controlling meeting blowhards is difficult enough in face-to-face meetings, but virtual meetings present next-level problems, because techniques that work face-to-face are unavailable. Here are eight tactics for controlling virtual blowhards. Available here and by RSS on March 29.
kudzu enveloping a Mississippi landscapeAnd on April 5: Listening to Ramblers
Ramblers are people who can't get to the point. They ramble, they get lost in detail, and listeners can't follow their logic, if there is any. How can you deal with ramblers while maintaining civility and decorum? Available here and by RSS on April 5.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenGyrJkahuoidithwGner@ChacTKOmwzEDzyKtuxiYoCanyon.com or (617) 491-6289, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

Changing How We Change: The Essence of Agility
MasteChanging How We Change: The Essence of Agilityry of the ability to adapt to unpredictable and changing circumstances is one way of understanding the success of Agile methodologies for product development. Applying the principles of Change Mastery, we can provide the analogous benefits in a larger arena. By exploring strategies and tactics for enhancing both the resilience and adaptability of projects and portfolios, we show why agile methodologies are so powerful, and how to extend them beyond product development to efforts of all kinds. Read more about this program. Here are some upcoming dates for this program:

Conflict Resolution Skills for Leaders
ConflConflict Resolution Skills for Leadersict is inherent in collaborative work. When conflict is constructive, it produces better outcomes. When it's destructive, it can be an insurmountable obstacle to success. In this program, we explore the connections between the outcomes of collaboration and conflict in both of its forms. And we emphasize the skills needed most by leaders. The leader's task is to manage conflict so as to ensure that the group achieves its objective with its capacity to collaborate intact, or even enhanced. Rick Brenner shows team leaders and team sponsors the techniques they need to manage team conflict for relationship safety and better outcomes. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

Influencing Outcomes Without Authority
Your Influencing Outcomes Without Authorityability to influence others — whether upward, downward, laterally, or within a team — always depends on both the quality of your relationships with the people you influence, and on your perception and their perception of your personal power. In this program, Rick Brenner shows you the techniques for making things happen not by using formal organizational power, but by using informal, personal power. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

Strategies for Leading Teams in Hard Times
When Strategies for Leading Teams in Hard Timesa project team is on task, the contributions of leaders are important, and little noticed. Sometimes the team encounters unexpected difficulty, or requirements change, or budgets are reduced, or any of a number of other things might happen. In these cases, the leader must make or facilitate decisions about how to respond or how to revise the plan. We get through it somehow. Hard times are something else altogether. Despondency, disillusionment, resource shortages, unexpected and severe failure of the plan, and toxic conflict can erode morale. How can leaders deal with such situations? Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

Strategies for Technical Debt: A Workshop for Enterprise Leaders
TechnTechnical Debt Management for Enterprise Leadersical debt is more than mere IT jargon. It's a metaphor that refers to the accumulation of technical artifacts that really ought to be retired, replaced, rewritten, re-implemented, or, if absent, created. We can find technical debt in almost any system, including those that seem to be working well. So what's the problem? The problem is the "interest charges." Systems carrying technical debt are more difficult to maintain, more difficult to extend or enhance, and more difficult to use, than they would be if we "retired" the debt. This engaging and eye-opening program points the way to a path that leads your organization out of technical debt, to make it more adaptable, more transformable, and more agile. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

Creating High Performance Virtual Teams
Many Creating High Performance Virtual Teamspeople experience virtual teams as awkward, slow, and sometimes frustrating. Even when most team members hail from the same nation or culture, and even when they all speak the same language, geographic dispersion or the presence of employees from multiple enterprises is often enough to exclude all possibility of high performance. The problem is that we lead, manage, and support virtual teams in ways that are too much like the way we lead, manage, and support co-located teams. In this program, Rick Brenner shows you how to change your approach to leading, managing, and supporting virtual teams to achieve high performance using Simons' Four Spans model of high performance. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

The Race to the South Pole: Ten Lessons for Project Managers
On 14The Race to the Pole: Ten Lessons for Project Managers December 1911, four men led by Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole. Thirty-five days later, Robert F. Scott and four others followed. Amundsen had won the race to the pole. Amundsen's party returned to base on 26 January 1912. Scott's party perished. As historical drama, why this happened is interesting enough, but to organizational leaders, business analysts, project sponsors, and project managers, the story is fascinating. Lessons abound. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Follow me at Google+ or share a post Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
21st Century Business TravelAre your business trips long chains of stressful misadventures? Have you ever wondered if there's a better way to get from here to there relaxed and refreshed? First class travel is one alternative, but you can do almost as well (without the high costs) if you know the tricks of the masters of 21st-century e-enabled business travel…
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.