March Madness is great. It is likely the most “highly engaged” North American sporting event year after year. Nearly 40 million people filled out a bracket for this year’s men’s tournament. The American Gaming Association estimated Americans wagered over $10B (that’s Billion) on this year’s tournament, greater than the individual GDPs of 52 countries around the world. In addition, Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc., a job placement firm in Chicago, estimates the time lost filling out brackets and watching games will cost US businesses nearly $4B in total lost productivity (not to mention productivity lost globally as well, I used to work overseas and our office pool was packed year after year as well). This truly is ‘madness’, of the best kind, in the name of sport and competition.
March Madness also provides a great fish bowl for observing the, often, harsh realities and consequences of ‘unavoidable’ Groupthink. Year after year millions put their hard-earned money and pride on the line based on flawed, overthought logic. The NCAA’s seeding system is inherently flawed. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not for lack of trying. (Knock yourself out reading the NCAA selection committee’s very detailed criteria for setting the brackets. It is fascinating for trivia geeks, a sleeping-pill for everyone else.) And don’t hear me saying, “It’s RIGGED” either. I don’t have a bone to pick, just a leadership observation to make. The system is flawed because it gives:
- too much weight to prior ‘experiences’, especially early in the process
- too much weight to the ‘eye test’ of conformity
- too little weight to health, growth, and ‘unusual’ ways of delivering results
In a system where conferences only crossover to compete against each other until December, early results that ‘set’ which conferences are strong and which are weak fail annually in March. RPI ratings are skewed inaccurately to early season performance and have no way of ‘rectifying’ themselves as the season goes on (despite all the data crunching, stat scrubbing, eye-testing, hand wringing, and interviewing the selection committee does).
The ACC owned this Achilles heel again opening weekend of this year’s ‘madness’. No less than 9 teams from the ACC received an invite to the tournament. Six of the nine teams were seeded #5 or higher including a #1 seed and two #2 seeds (or 3 of 8 possible top seeds in the tournament). Only one ACC team advanced to the Sweet 16. It shouldn’t be a shock. In fact, it should have been expected.
As someone who has filled out a Bracket since the mid-80s, when we had to photocopy a graphic out of the newspaper, distribute physical copies to all participants, and tally the ‘Bracket Champ’ by hand, I’ve been through the roller coaster ride a few times. The secret to cracking the bracket and winning the office pool is not determining which #1 seeds will go down before the Final Four. The secret is identifying which conference has been terribly overseeded and which is underseeded. It happens every year. You sniff that out…you’re golden.
One year it might be the Big 12. The next the Pac-12. The following year the Big 10. The Sweet 16 exposes the annual tournament weakness. The weakness isn’t the teams from the overseeded conference. It’s not their fault they are overseeded and unable to live up to the hype. The weakness is Groupthink spurred on by bias, assumptions, and lack of real data around what creates success within a team. This weakness exists on almost every team, every group, and even every family. Wherever two or more are gathered, we face the dangers of Groupthink.
Why? Simple – we can’t stand having our assumptions and judgments challenged.
We haven’t been taught the skills required to identify assumptions and walk through the process of vetting them. We are ‘wired’ to mentally file things according to our prior experience. We fight with everything we have to affirm our opinions and stroke our egos. We search through data to find the parts that confirm what we want to see. We surround ourselves with others who think like we do and avoid people who don’t.
The fatal flaw in the NCAA seeding process is relying on RPI scores and strength of schedule (SOS) rankings that are anchored in early season inter-conference tournaments and don’t have the ability to effectively adapt throughout the year as teams improve, get healthy, and transcend expectations and eye-tests. There really isn’t an easy fix because after the pre-season every conference has to complete their conference schedule and conference tourney to prep for Selection Sunday. Conferences who emerge from pre-season perceived as ‘strong’ (not to mention historical perceptions and biases toward certain ‘iconic’ programs and coaches) are ranked highly. Then those highly ranked teams play each other within their conference and reinforce their inflated standing within the RPI and SOS system. With the selection committee, the NCAA goes to great lengths to be as equitable as possible, but their hands are tied to a large degree. Their ‘Groupthink’ is hard-wired in. It is basically “unavoidable”.
The good news is ours doesn’t have to be. Fight Groupthink within your team, your group, or your family:
- Learn to be aware of your assumptions and judgments.
- Ask questions about where they came from and if they have merit.
- Listen and learn from others who don’t share your same opinions.
- Introduce information and data that challenges your expected conclusions.
By doing these things you will find your ‘team’ will become more healthy, grow more rapidly, adapt more effectively, avoid underachieving, and reach higher levels of success.
Where has Groupthink inhibited a ‘team’ you are currently on?