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Avoiding the dangers of groupthink during business continuity planning

David Honour highlights specific areas in the business continuity lifecycle which are at particular risk from groupthink.

Groupthink, a term coined by psychologist Irving Janis in his 1972 work ‘Victims of Groupthink’ (published by Houghton Mifflin; ISBN: 0-395-14044-7), occurs when a team makes poor decisions because of group pressures. In a typical groupthink scenario individuals fail to raise personal qualms, doubts and misgivings due to the perceived requirement to fit in with the wider group. The resulting group decisions may be inferior, and may lack ‘reality testing, and moral judgment’.  

Business continuity planning is rooted in group decision making and is therefore at risk from groupthink. Business continuity managers need to be aware of its signs and symptoms and should consider tools and techniques to reduce its impact.

Symptoms

Janis documented eight symptoms of groupthink:

1. An illusion of invulnerability, shared by most or all the members, which creates excessive optimism and encourages taking extreme risks; 

2. Collective efforts to rationalize in order to discount warnings which might lead the members to reconsider their assumptions before they recommit themselves to their past policy decisions; 

3. An unquestioned belief in the group's inherent morality, inclining the members to ignore the ethical or moral consequences of their decisions; 

4. Stereotyped views of ‘enemy’ leaders as too evil to warrant genuine attempts to negotiate, or as too weak and stupid to counter whatever risky attempts are made to defeat their purposes; 

5. Direct pressure on any member who expresses strong arguments against any of the group's stereotypes, illusions, or commitments, making clear that this type of dissent is contrary to what is expected of all loyal members; 

6. Self-censorship of deviations from the apparent group consensus, reflecting each member's inclination to minimize to himself the importance of his doubts and counterarguments; 

7. A shared illusion of unanimity concerning judgments conforming to the majority view (partly resulting from self-censorship of deviations, augmented by the false assumption that silence means consent); 

8. The emergence of self-appointed mindguards - members who protect the group from adverse information that might shatter their shared complacency about the effectiveness and morality of their decisions. 

Groupthink in the BIA process

In the business continuity lifecycle, groupthink can be a particular problem during the business impact analysis and risk assessment process. BIA information gathering sessions are often conducted in a group environment and there are risks that group pressures will lead to under-estimating organizational threats and their impacts; especially given the first symptom of groupthink, as listed above. There is also the potential for members of staff to feel under pressure (real or perceived) not to reveal weaknesses and vulnerabilities which could result in blame being attached to the wider department and/or its senior management.

Various strategies can help to reduce groupthink risks in the BIA process:
- It may be appropriate to test group results with individual one-to-one interviews;
- A group is more vulnerable to groupthink when its members are similar in background, and when the group is not exposed to external input and opinions, so the use of an independent consultant can be of great assistance in reducing the influence of groupthink; especially if he/she is given one-to-one access to individual group members under conditions of anonymity.

Groupthink in the strategy phase

Developing business continuity strategies is another fertile field for groupthink. One of the largest risks is that the senior business continuity manager will dominate decision making, with the rest of the team deferring to his/her authority and experience. To help avoid this aspect of groupthink developing, the business continuity team leader(s) should avoid giving their views and opinions at the start of the process; instead the input of other team members should be encouraged and welcomed. Senior business continuity managers should avoid the temptation to immediately dismiss ideas that don’t fit with the conventional way of doing things.

Again, the use of an external consultant can be helpful here; not only bringing a wider view of the strategies that can be applied to a particular business continuity issue, but also being used to challenge team assumptions and decisions. If an external consultant is not used it may be useful to give a confident and senior team member the role of devil’s advocate to provide the necessary challenges.

General anti-groupthink weapons

Overall, the main weapon in the anti-groupthink armoury is simply the awareness of its existence. No team is exempt, however good a team it may be. Business continuity managers need to be on the lookout for its influence in every meeting and in every decision taken.

Another great weapon which can highlight the influence of groupthink is regular testing and exercising of business continuity strategies. This will bring to light bad decision making before it has had a chance to cause real damage.

Standards and benchmarking are useful sense-checking tools. If your business continuity plans and strategies are greatly out of line with the latest business continuity standards or with what your peers are doing, then it will be necessary to go back and check that your plans haven’t been derailed by groupthink.

Make a comment / send your examples of groupthink.

Author: David Honour is editor of Continuity Central.

•Date: 6th Jan 2011 • Region: World •Type: Article •Topic: BC general

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