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Getting Good from the Group while Avoiding Groupthink

The panel works a lot like a jury is supposed to work; it aggregates the experience of a reasonably well informed group, sometimes tapping into expertise that single individuals could not use.  Our group had five senior FSOs from various cones and with various career paths, alone with one member of the public for proper leavening. We made special efforts NOT to fall into either groupthink, where we have too much early consensus, or chaos, where we don’t achieve consensus at all. This meant initially ranking files w/o deliberation and then voting on those we thought were high, low or middle. 

I was surprised how often we came independently to similar conclusions. There were often overwhelming majorities on one side or the other. We discussed some of them briefly as a form of quality control. Perhaps more interesting than the near unanimity of the results was the fact that often the reasons for the decisions were very different. This made me more confident of the decision, since each person bringing his/her experience to bear on the aspect of the decision they knew the best had led to this aggregated decision. 

Of course, there were some close votes and those required more deliberation. Nobody tried to dominate the group, but each member came to be recognized as having particular expertise in some things.  I, for example, had more experience in public diplomacy and in running PRTs and that experience helped me understand if particular claims or achievements were really significant or just things that would have happened anyway. I could also point to instances where officers had tried very hard to achieve a very difficult goal and even in failure had demonstrated the characteristics we are looking for in our senior leadership. We tried not to penalize innovators, even if their reach sometimes exceeded their grasp, but of course you have to draw distinctions between innovation and recklessness. This is not always as clearly evident as we might like. I was glad to contribute my own expertise and grateful that my fellow board members also brought a lot to the table.

I believe we made good decisions and that our group decision was better than any one of us could have done alone.


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