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Why smart teams sometimes make dumb decisions

On the downside of emergence

Emergence is a fascinating phenomenon. In this case, we're talking about one of the emergent properties of teams. Namely, that a group of smart people working together can actually lead to a decrease in the quality of their thinking process, rather than an increase.

You might expect the whole to be greater than the sum of its parts - synergy. But quite often, it goes the other way. When this happens, it's often because the team is only engaged in first-order thinking or single-loop thinking.

Single-loop thinking: Do -> Result

Double-loop thinking: Think -> Do -> Result

Triple-loop thinking: Be -> Think -> Do -> Result

As you can see above, the conversation of single-loop only focuses on the relationship between what needs to be done and the expected outcome. There's often no room to discuss the thinking that led to these conclusions. This is where learning double-loop thinking comes in.

Sometimes you even get stuck because you think very differently and you could explore a deeper layer: from what identity, can you best approach this problem in the first place? This is triple-loop learning and it provides the richest insights, but let's start with the first one for now.

When a group gets stuck in an exchange of "if we do X, then we'll achieve Y" arguments without exploring the basis for these assumptions, it's useful for an EX-professional to intervene in the process. Because if you don't, it can lead to stagnant teams or dysfunctional conflict.

Exploring with the group how they think about what needs to done is a way to deepen the discussion. You do need a good process to create space for different thinking styles that need to collaborate and compete healthily. This creates healthy friction without alienation.

It often helps to take a short break before you start this, to create some mental space for this thought process. You can almost guarantee that if you don't intervene, the group will dig themselves deeper and not be able to utilize each other's talents. And that's a terrible waste.


P.S. Want to know more about our highly valued inspiration session: Meaningful change in the real world? Mail us at or click here for a Dutch video preview.


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