Guarding against Groupthink

By Caroline OliverOctober 16, 2013 | Print

Every so often, a new term or phrase suddenly seems to be on everyone’s lips. In the world of governance, the term groupthink seems to me to be one such example. Recently, I have heard many board members worrying: “Are we victims of groupthink?” In the context of the Policy Governance principle that boards “speak with one voice,” this is a particularly interesting question.

GROUPTHINK IS TYPICALLY defined as a psychological phenomenon that arises when a group of people cares more about avoiding conflict with each other than they do about the quality of the decision they are making. On a board, avoiding conflict is likely to show up as the board’s not only minimizing differences and debate among board members but also minimizing the range of external influences board members come under, individually and collectively.

The problem with groupthink is that peace and harmony (and often an illusion of invulnerability) are acquired at the cost of full vision, clarity, and creativity. You do not have full vision if you are not prepared to bring in a wide variety of perspectives. You do not have clarity if you are not willing to dig into issues. You do not have creativity if you just keep seeing what you have always seen. Unfortunately, narrow vision and “same old, same old” does not typically lead to Ends achievement.

An example of this at the organizational rather than board level made me chuckle a couple of weeks ago. I emailed a small society in my hometown about attending a rather interesting-sounding lecture. A very polite and lengthy reply came a week later advising that I should send a check made out to the society in the mail and suggesting that I also enclose a self-addressed envelope so that the tickets could be mailed back to me. What—no online payment possibility? No credit card facility? No paying at the door? They really want me to write out a check (if I can remember where my hardly-ever-used-anymore checkbook is), handwrite a letter, address two envelopes, find two stamps, and walk down to the mailbox? One gets the feeling that this society is unlikely to be growing fast anytime soon.

Similarly, we all know boards whose membership has hardly changed in decades, who constantly refer to the past to tell them how the future should go, and whose meetings are almost entirely a matter of routine. What chance is there that these boards will lead their organization toward greater relevance and success in fulfilling their owners’ intent? Not much.

Let us go back to Policy Governance and the principle that boards “speak with one voice.” At first blush, it would seem that such a principle might actively be calling for groupthink, but that would be to ignore the very first line of the first principle of Policy Governance, namely:


The board exists to act as the informed voice and agent of the owners, whether they are owners in a legal or moral sense.1

This means several things that prevent any board members using Policy Governance from becoming mired in groupthink:

It is not your opinion that matters. What matters is your ability to make a wise summation of owners’ opinions.

Diversity is essential. You need to ensure that the information you have available for decision making reflects the diversity of the ownership. This can be done in many ways, including conducting research, running groups, and holding public meetings. In other words, you need outreach that brings you much more information about your owners and their intentions than trying to stock your board with particular people from particular backgrounds ever could.

There are other dimensions, too, that have Policy Governance boards looking well beyond themselves. The fourth principle of Policy Governance refers to the board’s role in developing Ends policies. Here is the first sentence of that principle:

Ends Policies:

The board defines in writing its expectations about the intended effects to be produced, the intended recipients of those effects, and the intended worth (cost-benefit or priority) of the effects.2

The thing to notice, from the perspective of the need to avoid groupthink, is that Ends are about effects to be produced outside the organization, which, as Karen Fryday-Field has pointed out in a recent two-part article,3 automatically requires boards to apply a very expansive kind of thinking:

… Chait, Ryan, and Taylor have described generative thinking as thinking focused on purpose. 4 In the Policy Governance context, it is “thinking that challenges the status quo and thinking that disrupts the alignment of the current reality with a look at a desired future.”5 It represents primarily right brain thinking, or creative, intuitive, imaginative, and emotional thinking. A board engaged in generative thinking will have a collective inquiring mind about what is happening outside the organization, always enlarging and updating its area of awareness.6

Again, this means several things that prevent any board members using Policy Governance from becoming mired in groupthink:

You need to be aware of what’s going on in the wider world. No board can create doable, relevant Ends without some form of what is often called “environmental scanning.”

You need to be future focused. Ends policies create the future for your organization. The past and the present are relevant information for creating the future, but they do not have to dictate the future.

Finally, let us examine the Policy Governance principle that speaks directly to the board speaking as one:

Board Holism:

The authority of the board is held and used as a body. The board speaks with one voice in that instructions are expressed by the board as a whole. Individual board members have no authority to instruct staff.

The important thing to notice here is that the principle refers to how board authority is used and expressed as “one voice,” not how that single expression is arrived at. Thus, any Policy Governance board would be foolish to ignore the evidence that diversity in debate improves decision making7 and consider the following:

• Creating an annual ownership linkage plan

• Conducting regular environmental scanning exercises

• Having regular Ends reviews that incorporate the results of both the above

• Use of term limits to encourage constant refreshment

• Education that encourages board members’ appreciation of the value of diversity in debate (e.g., using De Bono’s Six Hats).8


1. International Policy Governance Association in consultation with John and Miriam Carver, 2005–2007–2011. “The Ten Principles of Policy Governance.” Retrieved from

2. Ibid.

3. Fryday-Field, K. “You Can’t Create Ends without a Different Kind of Thinking”—Parts 1 and 2, Board Leadership nos. 126 (March–April 2013) and 127 (May– June 2013).

4. Chait R., Ryan, W., and Taylor, B. Governance as Leadership: Reframing the Work of Non-Profit Boards (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2005).

5. Liedtka, J. “Linking Strategic Thinking with Strategic Planning,” Strategy and Leadership, October 1998, 120–126.

6. Carver, M. “Ends Policies: A Review of Theory and Practice,” Board Leadership, no. 106 (November–December 2009).

7. See, for example, Stanford Graduate School of Business, Diversity and Work Group Performance. Retrieved from

8. De Bono, E. Six Thinking Hats (London: Penguin, 2009).

The Policy Governance Model

BOARD LEADERSHIP requires, above all, that the board provide vision. To do so, the board must first have an adequate vision of its own job. That role is best conceived neither as volunteer-helper nor as watchdog but as trustee-owner. Policy Governance is an approach to the job of governing that emphasizes values, vision, empowerment of both board and staff, and the strategic ability to lead leaders.

Observing the principles of the Policy Governance model, a board crafts its values into policies of the four types below. Policies written this way enable the board to focus its wisdom into one central, brief document.


The board defines which human needs are to be met, for whom, and at what worth. Written with a long-term perspective, these policies embody most of the board’s part of long-range planning.

Executive Limitations

The board establishes the boundaries of acceptability within which staff methods and activities can responsibly be left to staff. These limiting policies, therefore, apply to staff means rather than to Ends.

Board-Management Delegation

The board clarifies the manner in which it delegates authority to staff as well as how it evaluates staff performance on provisions of the Ends and Executive Limitations policies.

Governance Process

The board determines its philosophy, its accountability, and specifics of its own job.

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