To Manage Better, Think Like a Terrorist

Last Updated May 11, 2010 9:05 AM EDT

Anita Williams Woolley On any given day, your team members may feel like they're playing offense or defense -- for example, aggressively working to steal a competitor's market share, or fending off a rival's attempt to do the same. These perceptions shape the way they work together as a unit, suggests new research from Tepper School of Business professor Anita Williams Woolley. Change the way they think, and you may pave the way for more productive teamwork.

In her study, Professor Woolley observed interactions within eight counterterrorism teams comprised of members of the CIA, FBI, and other intelligence agencies. In this exercise, all eight teams were charged with predicting the actions of a hypothetical terrorist group. Four teams were instructed to take defensive postures as they worked to uncover the plot. Their mission was to use the threat information provided to take appropriate preventative measures. The other four teams were asked to adopt the perspective of the terrorists and plot against the United States using the same threat information.

Depending on their orientation -- defensive or offensive -- the teams worked together very differently. Those on defense suffered from analysis paralysis, quickly becoming frustrated and burned out. They felt compelled to exhaust all possibilities, frequently turning to experts outside their group in search of a "golden nugget" that might help them solve the plot, and failing to effectively use available internal resources. "The more I read, the less confidence I have in what we concluded," said one team member. These teams viewed their opponents as strong and capable of anything.

In contrast, the offensive teams saw their opponents as relatively weak and easy to rattle -- an outlook that could lead to dangerous overconfidence. The offensive teams' motto could be summarized as "keep it simple." As one team plotted its attack, a participant concluded, "trying to do everything is doing nothing." These teams quickly settled on plans, recognizing that any number of plots could be effective. They also had more fun than their counterparts on defense, requiring frequent reminders to break for lunch and demonstrating that they had continued to work on the problem in their free time.

Not in the business of thwarting terrorist plots? Woolley says her findings, which were later replicated in a laboratory setting, provide crucial tools for managers in less hostile environments. For starters, as you approach a problem, there is merit in merely recognizing that you and your team are likely to be operating under either a defensive or offensive bias. To mitigate the resulting dangers of analysis paralysis on the one hand and overconfidence on the other, divide your team into two groups and ask them to consider the problem from either the defensive or offensive perspective. Instead of simply anticipating the moves of a company that threatens to put yours out of business, you'll be able to assess the peril by thinking like that company. And if you're convinced you'll trounce your opponents, defensive thinking will help you stop and reconsider. They may in fact have other plans.