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Past success often causes groups to think narrowly around strategies that have worked in the past, even when environmental change has rendered these strategies ineffective. From a psychological perspective, this research seems to indicate that past success may give rise to convergent thinking in groups. Why might successful groups be prone to convergent thinking? I argue that the relationship between past success and convergent thinking may depend on the attributions that groups generate to explain their shared success. In this paper, I focus on two distinct attributions at the group level: Individualfocused attributions that reflect the idiosyncratic characteristics of individual group members and group-focused attributions that reflect the emergent properties of the group as a whole. I found that group-focused attributions for past success cause groups to generate fewer ideas that are, on average, more convergent. In contrast, individual-focused attributions cause groups to generate more ideas that are on average more divergent. These findings suggest that the experience of success may actually stimulate divergent thinking depending on how a group chooses to explain it. Copyright # 2004 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
An impressive body of research suggests that past success gives rise to a single-minded persistence that may be beneficial when a group must overcome obstacles (Bandura, 2000), but harmful when changes in the environment make a strategic shift necessary for survival (Audia, Locke, & Smith, 2000). Based on the notion that past success causes strategic rigidity, scholars have debated over whether such rigidity may be viewed as resilience and therefore necessary for future success, or whether such rigidity may cause stagnation and eventual failure (Whyte, 1998). Despite this disagreement, the two lines of research do share a common underlying assumption: Past success serves to narrow a group’s focus of attention, an issue commonly conceptualized as convergent thinking (Mayer, 1992).
In contrast to previous work, I propose that a deeper understanding of the factors to which group success may be attributed leaves open the possibility that success may actually stimulate divergent thinking and an open-minded consideration of alternatives. Specifically, I identify an attributional dimension that may have direct implications for the issue of convergent thinking in groups. Attributions for group success may be focused on the individual group members and their unique characteristics, or they may be focused on the emergent properties of the group as a whole. Drawing on theories of social influence, I argue that the extent to which a group is narrow-minded following success may depend on whether their attributions are group-focused or individual-focused. I test these propositions in a laboratory study.
Limitations and Future Research
One limitation of the present study is that the exact mechanisms linking attributions to convergent thinking were not measured. However, the results were consistent with my theoretical propositions. The influence of attributions on convergent thinking is probably not due to any direct informational value of the attribution itself, given the fact that convergent thought was demonstrated on a subsequent and unrelated task. Instead, it is possible that attributions that centre on the group as a whole might create conformity pressure. People are probably less likely to voice an idea that differs significantly from the ones that their fellow group members are generating if the success of the group is presumed to lie with aspects of the group that everyone shares. Conversely, if individual contributions are highlighted as the cause of the group’s success, people might be more likely to express ideas that differ significantly from those suggested by their fellow group members. Therefore, future research should examine the group processes that may link attributions for group success with convergent thinking. It should be emphasized, however, that it was not positive feedback by itself that led to convergent thinking, rather it depended on the way groups interpreted the causes of their success. In fact, the results suggest that past success may actually stimulate divergent thought depending on how a group chooses to explain it.