Wiser: A book review by Bob Mofrris

Posted on: March 10th, 2015 by bobmorris

WiserWiser: Getting Beyond Groupthink to Make Groups Smarter
Cass R. Sunstein and Reid Hastie
Harvard Business Review Press 2014)

How to separate, implement, and optimize the divergent and convergent stages of every problem-solving process

As I began to read this book, I was reminded of a passage in one of Tom Davenport’s recent books, Judgment Calls. He and co-author Brooke Manville offer “an antidote for the Great Man theory of decision making and organizational performance”: organizational judgment. That is, “the collective capacity to make good calls and wise moves when the need for them exceeds the scope of any single leader’s direct control.” Whenever asked if two heads are better than one, however, I reply, “Which heads?”

Organizational judgment can often be substantially better than the judgment of any one person but as Cass Sunstein and Reid Hastie correctly point out, “in the real world, discussion often leads people in the wrong directions. Many groups fail to correct the mistakes of their members. On the contrary, groups often amplify those mistakes. If groups are unrealistically optimistic, groups may be more unrealistic still. If people within a firm are paying too little attention to the long term, the firm will probably suffer from a horrible case of myopia. There is no evidence that the judgment mistakes uncovered by behavioral scientists are corrected as the result of group discussion.”

Sunstein and Hastie organize and present their material within four Parts: In Chapters 1-5, they explore the sources of group failure. They explain how to avoid or correct (a) members’ errors, (b) embracing a herd mentality, (c) becoming more extreme, and (d) valuing shared information at expense of unshared information. Re the latter point, Carla O’Dell and Jackson Grayson have much of value to say about that in their classic work, If Only We Knew What We know. Then in Chapters 6-13, Sunstein and Hastie shift their attention ton to the sources of group success. For example, in Chapter 7, they explain the immense importance of distinguishing between two quite different processes when attempting to solve a specific problem: identification of a list of potential solutions, and, selection of what seems to be the best solution. With regard to solving problems, I am again reminded of an observation by Peter Drucker in 1993: “There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all.”

These are among the dozens of passages of greatest interest and value to me, also listed to suggest the scope of Sunstein and Hastie’s coverage:

o Group Failures (Pages 19-99)
o Amplification impact: nature and extent (43-46)
o Group biases (53-55)
o Cascades of positive and negative momentum (57-75)
o Risk-taking (78-80)
o Group Successes (101-212)
o Eight ways to reduce failures (103-124)
o Devil’s Advocates and leaders (115-118)
o Identifying and selecting solutions (125-142)
o Using bias reduction (138-140)
o When crowds are wise (143-156)
o “Experts” (157-164)
o Tournaments to generate good ideas and spark creativity (165-180)
o Friedrich Hayek and prediction markets (181-194)
o Problem-solving(208-210)

One of Cass Sunstein and Reid Hastie’s primary objectives is to help teams make better decisions. In my opinion, these are the most valuable lessons to be learned about all that from the abundance of information, insights, and counsel they provide.

o Make absolutely certain that the team’s focus in on answering the right question, solving the right problem, etc.
o When in group discussion, team leaders should devote at least 80% of their time listening and observing; no more than 20% speaking.
o They should strongly encourage a diversity of perspectives, especially principled dissent.
o When obtaining the information required by the given process of decision-making, all relevant sources should be consulted.
o In terms of division of labor, tasks should be assigned to those best-qualified in terms of knowledge, experience, and judgment.
o Implementation of a decision should be sufficiently flexible to accommodate unexpected changes.
o Use a “devil’s advocate” approach when subjecting each option to rigorous scrutiny.
o Then consider using a “red team” approach to challenge the primary team during its implementation of the given decision.

Those who share my high regard for this book are urged to check out two others: Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow and Judgment: How Winning Leaders Make Great Calls, co-authored by Noel Tichy and Warren Bennis.

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  1. […] an excellent review of the book Wiser, check out Bob Morris’ review from his web site.  He includes additional “valuable lessons to be learned.” […]

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