Imagine a Better World: The Key to Improving Team Decisions

Groups make the best decisions when they don't think like a group.

Jeff Cunningham
4 min readMar 9, 2024

(This article previously appeared in Chief Executive Magazine)

“When we are too critical, it restricts creative thinking, and we neglect less obvious but brilliant ideas.”

— A.G. Lafley, CEO P&G

There is a dangerous disconnect at the intersection where business strategy meets innovation. Most seasoned groups fail and falter by making decisions that, in hindsight, didn't capture even a scintilla of collective wisdom. This paradox of groupthink is more common than you might imagine, even among sophisticated marketers.

The Anatomy of Missteps

Consider a historical blunder that should never have happened: Mars Candy's decision to decline to place M&Ms in Stephen Spielberg's "E.T."

The root of the decision is a common dilemma that even the most astute corporate teams face. Spielberg initially wanted to feature M&Ms, his preferred candy, to entice the film's elusive alien into the protagonist's home in the San Fernando Valley.

However, the famed director's commitment to secrecy, particularly concerning the alien's design and story details, meant he couldn't directly approach Mars Candies. "I simply made the request," Spielberg recounted in 2001 while promoting the film's special edition.

This insistence on confidentiality resulted in the company's reluctance to associate its product without full script access. As one of the producers remembered, "The catch-22 was that Steven didn't want to release the script." Mars passed. Reese’s Pieces got the part.

This scenario transcends the narrative of unforced error and underscores a prevalent challenge. Teams are often required to make pivotal decisions without access to all the information. It means going forward as a deeper hole is dug, and more unintended consequences. The result is that it all goes wrong and everyone is surprised.

P&G's Quest for Understanding

AG Lafley, the visionary CEO of Procter & Gamble, was at a crossroads similar to Mars Candy. It was a bet-the-company moment. The great consumer products company, with its vaunted reputation as a paragon of strategy, faced a dual challenge: it had to maintain a consistent system of innovation while not falling prey to the formulaic tendencies that snuff out brilliant ideas.

According to P.R. Week, the "wall of failure" at P&G headquarters is a testament to the company's commitment to learning from mistakes. It highlights misadventures ranging from product flops to marketing mishaps. The wall includes flops like Febreze Scentstories, the air freshener that looked like a CD player. When the brand team made the inspired decision to have Shania Twain sing in the commercial, it only added to the confusion.

Based on his findings, Lafley walked through that exhibit at least once a week.

The Pitfalls of Premature Decisions

He looked at the history of failed product launches. The crux of the problem wasn't a lack of expertise, insufficient data, or bad data but a rush toward a conclusion at the expense of curiosity. CBS, M&M, and Blockbuster's failures were traced back to the same problem: None of those teams included someone who imagined a future that turned out the way it did.

The premature drive towards decision-making short-circuits the creative process, which thrives on open-ended exploration and the incubation of diverse ideas. In other words, slow down to get there faster.

The Dynamics of Failure

The challenge of steering a group of experts can be formidable. The conference room, filled with competing egos and entrenched preconceptions, often becomes a battleground rather than a forum for innovation. Lafley observed that meetings intended to foster radical thinking often devolved into negotiations that reinforced the status quo, with skeptics silently retreating only to undermine decisions later.

Rethinking Group Dynamics

Lafley recognized the need to transform the fundamental dynamics of group collaboration to foster genuine innovation. Drawing from his experience, he identified biases in even seasoned teams and set out to realign P&G's approach.

This involved a deliberate shift towards embracing a broader spectrum of ideas at the outset, including suggestions that ranged from conventional to seemingly ludicrous, and only after allowing them to be incubated and refined without the pressure to narrow down options prematurely did decision time start. He created seven rules for making brilliant team decisions at a professional level, although, as you will see, the method can also apply to where a family goes on vacation.

The Seven Ground Rules for Ideation

Lafley introduced the following principles to help guide the generation of new ideas:

  1. Embrace Open-Ended Possibilities: Ideas should be welcomed without immediate judgment, fostering a culture where premature criticism never stifles creativity.
  2. Subject Ideas to Real-World Conditions: Before an idea is advanced, it must be vetted against a set of market realities, ensuring that only feasible concepts are pursued.
  3. Empower the Skeptics: Skeptics play a vital role in testing the resilience of ideas, ensuring that they are robust enough to withstand scrutiny.
  4. Democratize the Process: Hierarchies are flattened, with leaders serving as facilitators rather than directors, ensuring that the best ideas, not the loudest voices, prevail.
  5. Diversify the Team: Teams should be a mosaic of backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives, enriching the pool of ideas and approaches.
  6. Iterate Until Discomfort Is Reached: The process should push boundaries, challenging the status quo. Expand on the ideas until the team's comfort zones are breached.
  7. Engage an External Facilitator: A respected outsider can provide impartial guidance, helping navigate the complex idea evaluation and selection process.

In documenting these insights in "Playing To Win: How Strategy Really Works," Lafley underscores a fundamental truth: innovation is stifled not by a lack of ideas but by their premature dismissal.

The ability to build an environment where individual perspectives flourish within the collective separates innovative teams from those inclined to groupthink. By embracing these principles, teams unlock their full potential. Groups that make individuals think like individuals — and not like a group — are the smartest.