The big danger of Group Think in all walks of life, including the development industry, exposed.
I was very much reminded of the concept of Group Think by an excellent column of Matthew Syed in the Sunday Times of 15th August. Matthew has written this column for quite a while now and virtually every time gives me a deeper insight into some important aspect of the news. This column looked at some of the SAGE Committee’s early advice, as the Government’s main scientific source of guidance on how to react to the pandemic that has engulfed the country since early 2020.
Essentially, SAGE is a collection of some of our most experienced experts in a range of fields relevant to the pandemic. However, each person is very much the expert in their own field. He argues that what happens is that the others around the table can't really dispute what the expert in one area says, as they don’t have sufficient experience to maintain a credible position, if challenged. What this leads to is each person has to accept a particular expert’s view and then use that as context for their own ‘expert’ position. So a miscalculation in one area leads to further mistakes in the next area and so on. He cites in SAGE’s case consensus agreement on matters such as "mask wearing and border control, which later turned out to be wrong."
This article resonated with me as a planning consultant on major development projects. Each specialist area is usually represented by one expert. There is the planner, the architect, the ecologist, the drainage engineer, the Q.S. and so on. I can feel I am in exactly the same position as a member of SAGE. If the arboriculturist says that a tree must be retained and its root protection area is threatened then I have to accept; equally, with solutions proposed by the highways engineer. My opinion has to reflect that viewpoint, which is very difficult to challenge. Another example is cost – if the Q.S. says a two storey solution is more expensive than a single storey, despite needing double the foundation lengths and roof, there is no way I have the expertise to challenge it. And if this means that this compromises other aspects of the scheme, such as urban design quality or valuable trees tough.
I don’t have easy or indeed any solutions. And clearly retaining two of every expertise, like Noah and his Ark, in a development project is hardly practical. What is needed though is the serious amplifying of the message in the development industry, as well as many others, of encouraging the challenging of every opinion and the supporting of people to be very receptive to it. To change one’s opinion to respond to others to be seen as not a weakness, but a strength. And for teams in today’s incredibly complex world (that is becoming ever more complex) to be genuinely collaborative. No one, however talented, can be an expert in more than 1/2 areas.
In other words the more you know the more you should realise that you don’t know.