In the Sunday, November 2, 2008, New York Times business section was a great column by Robert J. Schiller, a professor of economics and finance at Yale, and a person who understands how the world works better than just about anyone teaching, researching, or writing today. In a piece in the “Economic View” section, entitled “Challenging the Crowd in Whispers, Not Shouts,” Dr. Schiller attempts to answer a question on many peoples’ minds: how could Alan Greenspan and other experts have so completely failed to predict and head off the worldwide financial meltdown that has taken place the last 18 months?
Schiller, who wrote a book entitled Irrational Exuberance , warning very specifically about the risk of a meltdown in the housing and financial markets, notes that there were experts who saw what was happening, but they were in a minority, and were treated as if they were less credible and of lower quality than the experts who held the prevailing view. He explained that, Dr. Irving Janis, a Yale psychologist, in a book entitled Groupthink, talked about the often unconscious insecurity experts feel when they are not receiving acclaim from their most renowned peers and the unconscious self-censorship that follows from it. As Schiller cogently states: “They self-censor personal doubts about the emerging group consensus if they cannot express these doubts in a formal way that conforms with apparent assumptions held by the group.” He goes on to describe how he experienced some ridicule and criticism from those who disagreed with him, and how difficult it would be for many people to buck conventional wisdom.
One explanation is that when there is well-ingrained conventional thinking, it is virtually impossible for mainstream thinkers to see the world differently.
Philosopher Thomas Kuhn wrote a great book in 1960 called The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, in which he said that the most innovative thinking in any scientific field came from people outside the field, because they were not imprisoned by conventional thinking. However, Dr. Schiller was suggesting that there is a second motivation, the insecurity of people to depart from conventional thinking because of their belief that unconventional thinkers will be denied reward and recognition.
Academia is a particularly difficult environment in which to buck conventional wisdom. Accomplishment is often measured by the number of peer-reviewed and peer-approved publications a professor can publish. Getting the cooperation and subtle reinforcement required to achieve this productivity in publication requires mutual respect and active cooperation. An individual who is right, but is not a mainstream thinker, puts himself or herself at great risk of not getting that cooperation and reinforcement if he or she takes a contrarian view on an issue in which there is generally a strong consensus.
Large organizations and leaders of any field of endeavor have to guard against “groupthink.” At Pitney Bowes, and in my other leadership positions, I took a number of steps to reduce groupthink:
- I was a role model for unconventional thinking, and I deliberately spent a great deal of time with the innovators in our organization. Even as a CEO I experienced passive resistance to change, but I made it clear that the people who would move up were those most resistant to groupthink.
- I specifically kept someone around in the senior leadership team who would be a check-and-balance on my thinking. In a way, even an aggressive, innovative thinker who wants to drive for change needs to show that he or she has the self-confidence to have at least one gadfly in the group.
- In meetings, I would consistently ask whether we were missing something in reaching a consensus.
- Most importantly, I consistently visited leading-edge customers and tried to have a regular dialogue with sales professionals who were most successful in crafting innovative solutions. I looked at leading-edge thinkers as the “canaries in the coal mine” to give us an early warning about major trends in our industry space.
I just wish more experts had listened to Dr, Schiller. As someone privileged to have met him and spent a few minutes talking to him at the World Economic Forum, I can assure you that we would have all been far better off if we had acted on his thinking.