Rethinking Group Thinking: How Culture Guides “Us”

November 13, 2014

All undergraduates at MIT, if they choose, can embark on a fully financed research program in one of many labs across campus. One of the most competitive labs to join is the one run by Institute Professor Bob Langer, in a world-famous mecca of innovation housed on the 6th floor of MIT’s Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research

Although there are remarkable students there of all levels – from undergraduates to postdocs – a little known secret about Bob’s lab is how he chooses who works on what. For undergrads, the “reward” for joining the team is that immediately after arrival they are handed an ultra-hard problem to solve, one more difficult than even the most accomplished postdocs might be working on.

Teamwork business concept

© Mikkolem |

“We give them these projects because it immediately gives them legitimacy among the group,” Bob told me during our time together at MIT. In his role as Institute Professor (MIT’s highest faculty honor), he has witnessed countless times that giving these uber-hard problems to the most junior members of the team actually serves to raise the bar for everyone. Soon enough the more experienced students dive in to help, and with remarkably frequency, the group rallies to discover completely surprising solutions. “These underdog successes underwrite our culture and demonstrate that anything is possible – that with passion and resilience all of us can tackle huge mysteries and make a difference.”

Just as in the lab, the most remarkable startups are acutely aware of the importance of culture, and go to great lengths to create and protect a culture that supports their definition of success as a company. Throughout healthcare, many large organizations are striving to undergo a cultural transformation in imitation of these smaller organizations, working to capture some of the magic that comes from being nimble, collaborative and flexible. Easier said than done.

Former MIT Professor Edgar Schein described the basic components of organizational culture in three buckets:

  • Artifacts – visible elements that are immediately recognized by people not part of the culture;
  • Values – stated rules of behavior, or public statements of identity; and
  • Assumptions – embedded, taken-for-granted behaviors that are hard to recognize from within.

Changing any one of these is difficult; addressing all three at once is really tough. As individuals, we are cued by our settings toward certain mental routines (see recent post), and groups also react to what is around them. Coming to the same office, seeing the same people, in the same dress code, in the same meeting rooms; all of these set in place behavioral cues that powerfully shape our actions – our “habits.”    

Think about your own organizational culture. How do the group’s interactions take place?  Is the group focused on consensus, so that everyone must agree before anything advances? Or, is the group focused on robust deliberation, an open, back-and-forth setting where any – and every – idea is openly challenged, and winning ideas require substantial evidence and championing? Or, is the group dynamic hierarchal and seniority eclipses candor?  

The good news is that even large organizations can change habits if they are methodic about it. Successful attempts start by stating clearly the new definitions of individual and group success. They strive to provide new settings with new faces, new spaces, and new norms for group dynamics and decision-making. They create and inculcate new cues and new routines that are attached to rewards.  

Culture is certainly easier to build than change, one of the key advantages of start-ups. Re-shaping culture and organizational habits in the context of preset teams and fixed settings requires added creativity and effort, but given the potential, it is time and energy well spent.    

Next up, the power of simplification in making the impossible seem possible.