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Groupthink is the enemy of greatness. It’s the enemy of imagination, and a friend of stagnation. It’s the enemy of logic and reason, and a friend of irrationality. Leadership naturally gravitates towards it. But only the leader has the power to see through it and break it.
Polaroid was one of the most revolutionary companies of the 20th century. It allowed the average person to document their life with photographs in vivid color, portably, and almost instantaneously. It lowered the barriers to photography by lowering costs and removing the need for cumbersome professional equipment. My childhood was built on Polaroid pictures. And if you grew up in the 80’s and 90’s, you probably have photo albums full of them.
Polaroid wasn’t just a name in photography. They were the name in photography. But if you visit their website today, you’ll see a shell of what they could have been. They are a relic of a glorious past, with no meaningful signs of a prosperous future. They’re holding on to bright colors and bulky printers, embracing—clinging to—nostalgia. But it didn’t have to be that way.
Their founder, Edwin Land, was a hero to the most innovative minds of our time, including Apple’s Steve Jobs. Land changed the world by inventing the instant camera and polarizing light filters in the first half of the 20th century. And he changed the course of the Cold War by helping design the U-2 spy plane in the 1950s. As Jobs once said, Land was “one of the greatest inventors of our time…The man is a national treasure.”
Edwin Land may have been an original thinker and a pioneering figure, but he never could transfer those qualities to his company. Until his death in 1991, Polaroid was at the cutting edge of photography, producing digital sensors that could capture four-times the resolution of their nearest competitors. But after his death, the company began to stumble. By 1992, they were ready to unveil yet another revolutionizing product: the digital camera. But they waited until 1996 to launch it. In doing so, they squandered the momentum of the 1980s, they relinquished their cutting-edge status, and allowed dozens of competitors to surpass them.
Polaroid spent half a decade stalled by the companywide assumption that people would always want physical photos. They couldn’t see what other companies were seeing—that digital was the future. Everyone knew the brand Polaroid, and Polaroid let it get to their head. It was their arrogance and hubris that would ultimately bring them to bankruptcy. But the ingredient that accelerated their demise was groupthink.
Groupthink occurs when a group’s desire for harmony and conformity exceeds the desire for quality and rationality. We’ve seen it in Polaroid. We’ve seen it in the Vietnam War. We’ve seen it in the Challenger disaster. And we see it today in the media. It’s intended to reduce conflict, but often creates more conflict when failure inevitably results. Groupthink is agree-at-all-costs. It’s a product of “The Peacock Effect.”
You can identify groupthink through eight symptoms, as described by psychologist Irving Janis:
- Illusions of vulnerability and excessive group optimism.
- Unquestioned belief in the morality of the group.
- Rationalizing any possible faulty thinking.
- Stereotyping those who are opposed to the group.
- Self-censorship by those who might disagree with the group.
- Illusions of unanimity; silence is viewed as agreement.
- Direct pressure to conform.
- Mindguards, or people who shield the group from opposing information.
There are dozens of books and documentaries that tell the story of Polaroid. Each one of them will doubtlessly refer to the damaging effects groupthink had on the company. Without Edwin Land, they were hopeless. The leaders who stepped in for him were not forward thinkers. They had all the qualities of hierarchical leaders who allowed the group to set the direction. They relied on what worked in the past—physical photos, and didn’t realize the errors in their thinking until it was too late. The once-leaders in photography were relinquished to bankruptcy in 2001.
As a leader, you are responsible for setting the direction and defining the path for those you lead, but not at all costs. You are also responsible for stress-testing your thinking. Challenge the momentum of the group to see whether the decisions and the overall direction of the group are rational and provide clarity, rather than just consensus. Here are two ways to avoid stagnation and see through the damaging effects of groupthink:
- Cultivate dissent. Most people are afraid to voice their opinion. But remember, leadership is mimetic. So, when your team sees you challenge your own thinking, they will feel more comfortable in doing the same. Always ask your people for their thoughts.
- Appoint a devil’s advocate. Make it someone’s job to disagree and find holes in your thinking and the group’s. When the devil’s advocate role is defined, it will be much easier for the group to accept dissent. Most importantly, it’ll be a mirror for your own thinking.
Groupthink is the enemy of greatness. It’s the enemy of imagination, and the enemy of the future. Leadership gravitates towards it. But only you have the power to see through it and break it.
Don’t be Polaroid.
Don’t allow the world to pass you by in favor of unanimous agreement.
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