Joseph Lee's Perspectives
My view of the world
December 6, 2008 - "Group Think"

A month after his election to the highest office of the nation, Barack Obama has impressed fans and foes alike with the selection of many of his cabinet picks.  This past week, he announced his National Security team.   Council.   


The National Security Council was established by the National Security Act of 1947, as amended (50 U.S.C. 402).  The Council was placed in the Executive Office of the President by Reorganization Plan No. 4 of 1949 (5 U.S.C. app.).  The National Security Council is chaired by the President. Its statutory members, in addition to the President, are the Vice President and the Secretaries of State and Defense. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is the statutory military adviser to the Council, and the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency is its intelligence adviser.

The Secretary of the Treasury, the U.S. Representative to the United Nations, the Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs, the Assistant to the President for Economic Policy, and the Chief of Staff to the President are invited to all meetings of the Council.  The Attorney General and the Director of National Drug Control Policy are invited to attend meetings pertaining to their jurisdictions; other officials are invited, as appropriate.  The Council advises and assists the President in integrating all aspects of national security policy as it affects the United States—domestic, foreign, military, intelligence, and economic—in conjunction with the National Economic Council.

(See US Government Manual).


The Secretary of State will be Senator Hillary Clinton.   Robert Gates will continue his role as Secretary of Defense as will Michael Mullen as the Joint Chiefs of Staff.   General James Jones will be the National Security Advisor (Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs).  Unlike Clinton, Gates, and Mullen, General Jones will have an office in the White House, meaning that he will be the top advisor to the President on National Security matters.


Obama’s choices were regarded as top notch, although there were immediate concerns whether so many high talented individuals could form a cohesive team.  This is like having an All-Star NBA or MLB team, with the potential of egos clashing.  In addition there were concerns that they may have disagreements not only within, but also with the President-elect himself.  In his December 1 news conference, Obama pointed out:


I assembled this team because I'm a strong believer in strong personalities and strong opinions. I think that's how the best decisions are made. One of the dangers in the White House, based on my reading of history, is that you get wrapped up in group think and everybody agrees with everything and there's no discussion and there are no dissenting views. So I'm going to be welcoming a vigorous debate inside the White House.

(Click here for the full transcript of the news conference)


Barack Obama uses the word “group think” to characterize an organization where perhaps there is too much drinking of the Kool Aid.


The focus in recent years of consensus building has often resulted in groups forgetting their primary mission—the reason they exist.   Groups and teams are formed, mainly because they serve the purpose of solving a problem or taking an action.  They do not exist to be friendly or to be nice.


I have found in my short tenure teaching at both Drucker and Pepperdine, that student teams spend an inordinate amount of time praising how well they have teamwork, often sacrificing the primary mission.  In order to avoid confrontations, they simply do not have a healthy exchange of ideas and opinions.   This is also true in companies.  In the interest of harmony and teambuilding, firms often focus too much on consensus building, rather than on the mission.


Consensus building is important AFTER the mission is accomplished.


The reason we put teams together, especially those with divergent individuals is to provide different perspectives, ideas, visions, and opinions to the process.  If those differences are checked at the entrance, before any discussions start, then the team would have lost its primary purpose of existence--to conduct a healthy debate.


Yesterday, I had the chance to conduct a training session with about 60 Japanese business executives from a variety of firms for the Japan Business Association (JBA) in Southern California on the topic of Leadership Communication for Global Japanese firms.   I had to leave my home in the Valley rather early.   Because I had parked my car outside, I noticed that my car was covered with dew.   Those of you living in LA know this.  The sharp drop in night time temperature makes all the cars sitting outside wet by the time the sun rises.  By the time I hit the 405 freeway, I was already on the road for 30 minutes, and my car was dry.  I looked outside to see other cars, most of them dry like mine, but a few of them were still wet, the water yet to dry from them.


I smiled and thought that most people must be commuting from afar because their cars were dry.  My instantaneous reaction was based on my point of view that 30 minutes made my car dry, so all dry cars on the road must have been on the road for 30 minutes or so.  I commended my self for my observational skills, wondering where I could use this story (I’m always looking for interesting stories to tell in class or in training).


Then something occurred to me—the  two cars sitting in my garage were totally dry in the morning.   So the cars that were on the 405, which did not have water droplets on them may have just gotten on the freeway, but the owners had garages.   My original conclusion that all of these cars must have commuted for some time was simply false.


We all approach problems based on our own perspectives.  They come from experiences, biases, etc., that shape our views.  Because I parked my car outside, I had one point of view yesterday morning.  Someone who parked inside may have had a different point of view (although most people commuting on the 405 probably don’t give a sh__ about dew on the hood).


Great! I thought, as I felt this was another story I could use during my training session.


“Group Think” as Obama characterized the problem, can be a killer in an organization.  Right now, everyone is focused on cutting costs and surviving.  They are all scared.   This is probably the most important time for companies and teams to find a way to avoid “group think.”


The President-elect certainly showed us how it could be handled.


Joseph Lee is an independent consultant and executive coach.  He is also an Adjunct Professor at the Peter F. Drucker and Masatoshi Ito Graduate School of Management where he teaches a second-year MBA course in Management Consulting.   In addition, Mr. Lee is also an author, writing International Business Thrillers, including his debut novel The Sky Burns Red (赤く燃える空) which was published in Japan.

2008-12-06 19:10:52 GMT
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