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Is OSM Guilty of Groupthink?

16 Nov 2011
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What the heck is Groupthink?

Coined by now-deceased psychologist and researcher Irving Janis, Ph.D., “groupthink,” was first written in a 1972 examination of foreign policy disasters and fiascos. He studied high-level policy-making groups that had a high-degree of cohesiveness and need for affiliation (think “inner-circle”) as opposed to groups (such as the U.S. Congress) that consist of opposing factions.

Symptoms of groupthink can include:

  • Direct pressures on dissenters -
    • members are under pressure not to express arguments against any of the group’s views
    • Does voicing a contrarian opinion isolate someone as a non-team player? Do healthy debates divide or foster better relationships? Are individuals able to respectfully disagree or must consensus rule the day?
  • Collective rationalization -
    • members discount warnings and do not reconsider their assumptions
    • Are discussions frequently held which debate the assumptions underlying conclusions? When is the last time a risk assessment of unlikely outcomes was discussed? When was the last "what if" meeting you participated in held?
  • Self-censorship -
    • doubts and deviations from the perceived group consensus are not expressed
    • When was the last non-unanimous vote on your Board? Have you withheld a question in discussion which might be viewed as opposing the CEO's/Chair's expressed view?
  • Illusion of unanimity-
    • the majority view and judgments are assumed to be unanimous
    • Does your internal process require documented votes by individuals? In the past year how many votes either opposed or abstained due to disagreement with majority?

Jacques Rentzke has today published the October 18, 2011 meeting minutes essentially bringing OSM current as far as publishing minutes (The November meeting was scheduled to be held on November 15, 2011). Thank you Jacques, we appreciate the timeliness.

I thought it would be interesting to see exactly what hard decisions have been made by the OSM board this year. My method for measuring hard decisions was to count the number of motions made where the board actually made a decision rather then simply hearing reports. I was somewhat surprised that there really wasn't any! Out of the nine 2011 board meetings where there are published minutes (a period of ten months), we have the following (all unanimous, of course):

  • Eight motions to approve minutes (some completed by email)
  • Nine motions to adjourn
  • One motion to extend 2010 budget until 2011 budget was finalized
  • One motion expressing thanks for releasing Joomla! 1.6
  • One motion to approve slate of officers
  • One motion to approve 2011 budget
  • One motion to thank Ole Bang Ottoson and Andy Tarr for their service

So what is missing? I would think a lot of things. Since the board didn't hold a formal board meeting in San Jose, I would have thought that they would want to have a discussion of the proposed reorganization in their first board meeting after their return. And, then I would think there should have been a motion made on whether the board thought they should go forward with proposing the reorganization for discussion and debate among the stakeholders. That would, at least, put the board on record which is not the case now. We only have the single board member proposing this reorganization. And, the public response from J!People site is not as rosy as it is made out to be in the October board minutes. There has been no public response on the leadership sites.

The same should have happened with discussion of revising the existing trademark policy. Before sending someone off to explore TM changes, there should have been a motion directing that those changes be sought and then proposed to the board. Again, the board is not on record to do anything. And, all discussion of what is being proposed is not occurring within the board meeting.

  • There was no motion at the board level to change shop vendors.
  • There was no motion at the board level to approve or select the new assistant treasurer.
  • There was no motion at the board level to approve or select the external communications leader.

With almost no discussion and certainly no alternative presentations available in the minutes, one can only conclude that this board is guilty of groupthink. It is a report-only board that makes no decisions and allows the board leaders (both official and unofficial) to control the outcomes.

What can be done? All or some of the suggestions below could be implemented.

  • Appoint one member the "Devil's Advocate" with the express mandate to question all proposed ideas and rotate this task among group members
  • Expect leader to encourage an environment of open inquiry.
  • Have two sub-groups work independently on the same critical issue and report back.
  • Include an operating ground rule that objections and unpopular alternatives must be given a hearing.
  • Insist the leader remain impartial
  • Oblige group member to discuss tentative decisions with trusted, outside colleagues not in the group.
  • Raise awareness by educating the group about the causes and consequences of Groupthink.
  • Require that higher ups not express an opinion or preference when assigning the group its task
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David Huelsmann

Dave Huelsmann was Treasurer of Open Source Matters, Inc. from 2008 to July, 2010 and Joomla Forum Global Moderator from 2005 to November, 2010. Now retired, he was a senior healthcare executive who managed large and diverse clinical laboratory, radiology, electroencephalography, and centralized patient transport operations/departments in both not-for-profit and for-profit companies throughout the United States.

Dave was a Navy Corpsman who served in Vietnam while attached to Seabee battalionmcb71

Read more about Dave Huelsmann

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