Monday, December 5, 2011



A 2-Pager by Ajit Chaudhuri: December 2011

Introduction: We have all, dear readers, at one time or another, been party to some really stupid decisions. Those of us with championship pretensions on this score would find the following list, of some of the dumbest decisions ever taken, humbling. The purpose of this paper, however, is not only to help put your own stupidity into perspective – it is also to examine why groups of intelligent people sometimes take stupid decisions, and how to avoid this. For those of you uninterested in history, please go directly to the end of page 3.

Some Of The Dumbest Decisions Ever Taken (in chronological order)

By the Shah Of Khwarazm – killing Genghis Khan’s envoys – 1218:

Khwarazm, or Eastern Turkestan, was a large and prosperous empire that included much of today’s Iran, Afghanistan, eastern Azerbaijan, and Central Asia. Extreme deserts and high mountains separated the empire from the Chinese in the east and a burgeoning Mongol tribe further to the north. The Mongols, who were busy at that time fighting the Chinese, sent a trade mission to Khwarazm. A local Governor stopped the mission and confiscated its goods at Otrar (along the Syr Daria river in today’s Kazakhstan). Genghis sent three ambassadors to the Shah, asking for the goods and the mission to be released and the local Governor to be punished. The Shah executed the ambassadors and sent their heads back to Genghis.

The Mongols crossed the Syr Daria with 200,000 men, led by Genghis himself, in 1219 and proceeded to sack the empire. Samarkand, Bukhara, Tashkent, Bamiyan, all flourishing cities at the time, were destroyed. Populations were massacred, raped and enslaved (this is where the Mongols picked up a reputation that has survived 800 years). The offending local Governor was captured and then history is divided as to whether he was built alive into a wall or made to swallow molten gold. The Shah spent two years running and hiding, a fugitive in his own kingdom (the Mongols chased him right up to the Indus river, their southern most advance) before dying in some remote island in the Black Sea. And the land became a Mongol Khanate.

By Napoleon – invading Russia – 1812:

Most of Europe was under French rule in early 1812 – the Prussians had surrendered, England was on the other side of the channel, and, apart from a few annoying guerrilla wars in Spain, the French were well in charge. French military might and Napoleon’s charismatic leadership combined with the values of liberty, equality and fraternity to make for an irresistible force, making the many little kings in the region nervous about the spread of ideas questioning the legitimacy of monarchy within their own populations. And then, Napoleon invaded Russia!

Adam Zamoyski’s account of the invasion, entitled ‘1812’ , suggests that the invasion was meant to be a rap on Czar Alexander’s knuckles that went too far (the Czar had been employing renegade Prussian officers in the Russian Army and encouraging insurrection against the French by the aforementioned little kings). The Grande Armee crossed into Russia in June 1812 with 500,000 men and crossed out in December with 27,000. And the events of those intervening months marked the beginning of the end of French hegemony in anything (with the possible exception of culinary arts).

By the British – invading Afghanistan – 1839:

The British became the bosses of the world in the 19th century – Napoleon was defeated, India was conquered, the sun had difficulty setting on the empire, etcetera. The one blip was on the Raj’s western front, where Czarist Russia was trying to get a foothold in Afghanistan. The British Governor General in India, Lord Auckland, decided that the Afghan Emir was unreliable, and sent in British (i.e. mostly Indian) troops in 1839 to install a puppet Emir and a British representative.

The forces reached Kabul, but were unable to hold on there and therefore decided to return to Peshawar in January 1842. A British contingent of about 16,000 people left Kabul, of whom one person reached Jalalabad on the Indian border. To quote Rev. G.H Gleig, an Army Chaplain in Kabul, it was ‘a war begun for no wise purpose, carried out with a strange mixture of rashness and timidity, brought to a close after suffering and disaster, without much glory to anybody. Not one benefit, political or military, was acquired with this war.”

By Germany – invading USSR – 1941:

The Germans of the 1930s decided on a policy of lebensraum (literally “living space”) or the need for eastward expansion – killing, deporting, or enslaving inferior Slavic populations and replacing them with superior Germanic peoples. Hitler came to a deal with Stalin in 1939, called the ‘Molotov-Ribbentrop Non-Aggression Pact’, dividing up eastern and northern Europe between Germany and Russia and ensuring quiet there so that he could fight in the west. And then, 4.5 million Axis forces moved into the USSR along a 2900 km front in June 1941!

Hitler was not prepared for a long war and fully expected to be in Leningrad, Moscow and Baku (yes, he needed the oil! Sounds familiar?) before the onset of winter. Bolstering his confidence was Stalin’s recent purge of the Red Army’s leadership, and it’s disastrous conduct of the 1939 winter war in Finland. He (i.e. Hitler) is rumoured to have said, “We only have to kick in the door and the whole rotten structure will come crashing down.”

It didn’t! The invasion determined the outcome of World War II, with 95 percent of German casualties between 1941 and 1944 being suffered in Russia , and ended in May 1945 in the form of a German surrender in Berlin.

By the USSR – invading Afghanistan – 1979:

In the 1970s, the Soviet Union was at the height of its empire. Today, it doesn’t exist! The key reason is a decision taken by the Politburo to respond to the ‘request’ of the then Afghan government for military support – the Red Army crossed the Amu Darya river in December 1979 looking to create a 16th state, Afghan SSR. It crossed back in February 1989, a shadow of its former self and a danger only to itself. And the Soviet Union disbanded in 1991. In the words of the then US National Security Adviser Brzezinski, ‘the Soviets fell into the Afghan trap’.

By Real Madrid – allowing Samuel Eto to Barcelona – 2004:

Florentino Perez became President of the world’s most successful football club in 2000 with the promise that he would buy Luis Figo, which he did. He also bought Zidane and Ronaldo and won La Liga in 2001 and 2003, and the Champions’ League in 2000 and 2002. He then ushered in the first era of ‘Galacticos’ with the purchase of Beckham – a policy of playing the best attacking footballers in the world and a defensive philosophy of ‘we’ll let in three but score six’.

Real Madrid had also purchased the 16-year-old Samuel Eto in 1997, and loaned him out to various clubs before selling him to Real Mallorca in December 2000, albeit with a buy-back clause. Eto proceeded to create havoc every time he played against Real Madrid, most famously scoring two wonderful goals in a 2-3 win for Mallorca in the Bernabeu in the 2003-04 season. At the end of the season, Real Madrid chose not to exercise the buy-back saying that they already had the two best strikers in the world (Raul and Ronaldo) , and Eto went to Frank Rijkaard’s Barcelona.

Eto went on to score 108 goals in 145 appearances for Barcelona, winning La Liga in 2005, 2006 and 2009 and the Champions’ League in 2006 and 2009 and being in the forefront of a shift in the focus of Spanish football from Madrid to the Catalan region that is firmly cemented today. Real Madrid did not win anything for the next three years (and has yet to challenge again for the Champions’ League), and went on to disband the Galacticos and relieve Perez of the club Presidency. As a footnote, Perez is now back and has ushered in another Galacticos era to break Barcelona’s grip on La Liga.

Why Intelligent People Take Stupid Decisions

Conventional thinking had it that highly cohesive groups generated the best decisions, and generated them quickly and with little fallout. And then, in 1961, the Bay of Pigs incident happened. Allow me to describe this a little!

Castro had just taken over Cuba, and the Americans didn’t like it. A new President, JF Kennedy, approved a covert plan to invade Cuba with a bunch of CIA-supported renegades, and to unseat Castro. The invasion was beaten back in three days and merely served to achieve its opposite objectives – strengthen Castro’s regime and cement its alliance with the Soviet Union.

The Kennedy administration studied what went wrong. They found that the CIA had made many assumptions – on the weakness of Castro’s army, on the support the renegades would receive from the local populace – that proved unfounded, and that the administration had not critically assessed the plans (and did not have systems that enabled critical assessment), and had not discussed and evaluated alternative plans. Key reasons for the above were that decision-making groups within the administration were homogenous, they strongly believed in the morality of their plans, and they relied heavily upon consensual validation, leading to a loss of individual creativity and independent thinking. The research psychologist Irving Janis, who studied the Bay of Pigs incident, termed this as Groupthink (GT).

To those with a love for definitions, GT is a mode of thinking that people engage in when they are deeply involved in a cohesive group, when the members’ striving for unanimity override their motivation to appraise alternative courses of action (Janis, 1972).

Most of us, if we think about it, have seen GT in action in our professional lives. Take a look at these symptoms and see if you recognize them.

Symptom 1: Overestimation of the group’s morality and power: This includes that illusion of invulnerability that creates excessive optimism and encourages the ignoring of dangers and the taking of risks, and that unquestioned belief in the morality of the group and the rightness of its objectives that causes members to ignore the moral and ethical consequences of their actions.

Symptom 2: Close-mindedness: This includes the collective rationalization of warnings – by explaining away or discrediting evidence that contradicts the group’s beliefs – and the stereotyping of those opposed as weak, evil, stupid, impotent, etc. In the cases above, the German view of Slavs and the Russian and British view of Afghans illustrate the latter component of this symptom.

Symptom 3: Pressures towards uniformity: This has several aspects! Groups sometimes indulge in self-censorship of ideas that deviate from apparent group consensus, or have ‘mind-guards’ or self-appointed members who shield the group from dissenting or adverse information. And the group creates an illusion of unanimity among members by viewing silence as agreement, and applies pressure on members to conform by seeing disagreement as disloyalty or, to use a recent term, as being ‘off message’.

Symptom 4: Overbearing leadership: The boss makes his/her preferred choice of action overt while assigning a task to a group.

GT often results in bad decisions due to the following reasons –

• An incomplete appraisal of objectives
• An incomplete survey of alternatives
• Failure to examine the risks of the preferred choice of action
• Poor information search and selection bias in information collection
• Failure to work out plan B

Guarding against GT? Janis has the following recommendations –

1. Higher-ups should not express opinions when assigning a task to a group.
2. Each member of the group should be a ‘critical evaluator’, and the group should be open to dissenting opinions.
3. An organisation should set up several independent groups to work on the same problem.
4. Group members should discuss ideas outside, with ‘trusted outsiders’.
5. Groups should invite outside experts to sit in its meetings.
6. All effective alternative courses of action should be thoroughly examined.
7. One group member, on a rotational basis, should be assigned the role of ‘Devil’s Advocate’ – arguing for a diametrically opposite course of action.

To conclude: There are several criticisms of GT, both as a concept and as a villain – the many good decisions that have come about as a result of GT, the many other (probably more influential) causes of bad decisions, and the fact that hindsight is always 20/20. But, coming from an industry with a high GT index (especially the moral superiority and overbearing leadership aspects of it), the concept strikes a chord. I, for one, will organize task-force groups differently in future. And I will have a stronger refrain when I am next shat on for harbouring a dissenting opinion – ‘you buggers are indulging in GT!’


Ajit Chaudhuri said...

What a superb article Chau - thoroughly enjoyed reading it. From ancient to modern history, and from football to NGOs, in a mere 5 pages, you strode over such a vast canvas covering 800 years ! Fantastic creativity, sharp intellect and superb insights. GT - had not heard that before, so that was very very interesting and made me think / reflect on the pitfalls of consensual decision making. 'Devil's advocate' is indeed a good idea - and I shall be more tolerant and open towards them than dismissing them off as dissenters !

Girish Menon

Jeevan Krishnakumar said...

Fantastic article! Having been a victim of GT myself in the very near past,I could relate the article really well. The ideas suggested like trusted outsider and devils advocate are seriously worth experimenting with. Thanks!