How to Protect Smart People From Dumb Decisions

Smart people make dumb decisions.

Chances are you think you’re above average in intelligence. Most of us do. Even though it’s impossible for MOST OF US to be above average at anything.

Two extremes:

Two extremes plague ineffective teams. Either the group nods their heads in agreement with the person at the head of the table (groupthink) or a dominant critic ends the conversation.

Both extremes result in tail-chasing, ineffective decision-making, squandered resources, and lost opportunities. But at the same time …

Ineffective teams pat themselves on the back for doing good work. Powerful people tend to be unaware of their own incompetence. After all, you make decisions because you think they’re right, not because you think they’re stupid.


Confidence goes up with stupidity. You can be completely confident of a stupid decision.

When Kennedy ordered a covert action to unseat Castro, he believed it would succeed. Today, when you say Bay of Pigs, you think dumb decision.

Confidence in a decision doesn’t indicate the rightness of a decision.

Kennedy was smart enough to review and adapt the White House’s decision-making process. Morten Hansen describes the results in his book, Collaboration.

4 ways to encourage constructive dissent:

  1. Each participant should function as a “skeptical generalist”. Look at the problem as a whole, not from their individual department’s standpoint.
  2. Meet in an informal setting. Avoid formal agendas and protocol.
  3. Divide the team into sub-groups that work on alternatives and then reconvene.
  4. Meet, occasionally, without the leader present.

5 tips for good team decisions:

  1. The person at the head of the table asks questions and talks less than the group.
  2. Get heads turning toward each other, not the head of the table. Create conversation.
  3. Generate three alternatives before making choices.
  4. Invite input from quiet members.
  5. Explore assumptions before making decisions.

What causes smart teams to make dumb decisions?

How might teams make better decisions?