Thursday, December 11, 2008

Team of Rivals

A great deal of attention has been paid to President-Elect Obama's desire to build a "team of rivals" where divergent points of view will be represented around the table when he has to make crucial decisions. He was particularly impressed with this concept as it was described by Doris Kearns Goodwin in her fabulous book about President Lincoln, which was called "Team of Rivals."

As many of you now, my research has focused a great deal on how leaders must foster constructive conflict as a means of improving their decision-making processes. In other words, I have tried to write about effective techniques for preventing groupthink. Bringing people with diverse backgrounds and views to the table is certainly a great start. However, it's not sufficient for producing a healthy dialogue and debate. President-Elect Obama, or any other leader, must keep in mind several other things.

First, as soon as Obama becomes the actual President holding meetings in the White House, the atmosphere will naturally change. Many people who may have been very open with him will almost certainly become more deferential out of respect for the office he will hold and because of the atmosphere within the Oval Office.

Second, to stimulate a vigorous debate, one needs specific tools and techniques for generating a healthy give-and-take. Irving Janis wrote about his theory of groupthink by studying the Bay of Pigs fiasco. That's a telling case because Kennedy built a superstart set of advisers which included several Republicans. Thus, he had a diverse set of people around the table, yet groupthink occurred. Later, in the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy employed a number of techniques for helping to force more debate among his advisers.

Finally, President-Elect Obama must remember that debates can easily become counterproductive. One has to be able to manage the interpersonal conflict that often arises in diverse teams. If that does not occur, then group harmony suffers, as will the ability to execute decisions that are made.