Groupthink hasn’t worked, it’s time to embrace the maverick
As the Arab spring continues to unravel into an Arab summer, the most important lesson is that hardly anyone knew it was coming. Much like the collapse of the Soviet Union, and Wall Street could it be that as much as conventional wisdom may be conventional it is not always reliably wise?
I recently hosted a conference in Washington on the future of nanotechnology. All kinds of experts were round the table talking tech and policy and business. Then one of them made a stunning statement. She was there on behalf of a big, mainstream environmentalist group. “I have never,” she stated, “been on such a diverse panel in Washington.”
There was a brief but palpable intake of air around the room. I thanked her for the compliment before adding that I was now more concerned for Washington than I was before.
Whom do we invite round the table when the questions are big and the stakes high? It tends to be those in the centre; the mainstream thinker whose wisdom is regarded as conventional.
When will we ever learn? We are still paying for the lesson we learned from Wall Street in 2008.
Conventional wisdom can be dead wrong, even in the hands of the smartest people because they tend to agree with each other. People with way-out views are kept at arm’s-length.
Whatever the issue, if your views deviate too far from the mean, however articulate you may be, you are unlikely to get invited, funded or promoted.
We have learned a lot this past generation about the value of diversity in age, gender, and ethnicity but we have learned little about the enormous and growing value of diversity of opinion.
Of course, we do disagree about a lot of things. With friends, and with co-workers. But we live in communities of ideas that set boundaries around acceptable diversity of thinking, and make sure we keep out those who challenge our shared assumptions.
We don’t want to rehash old issues we regard as closed. We don’t want to give room to opinions we find deeply objectionable – or threatening. Most of us find it challenging to take forward our thinking when there is someone in the room always, always asking why?
So our natural tendency is to put unconscious faith in Groupthink, the tendency for everyone’s thinking to move in the same direction to the exclusion of any serious questioning.
People in management know all about this as a problem for work groups and other teams. But it is more insidious and far more dangerous on the grand scale.
What brought Wall Street down, and with it threatened the entire global order? The G-word. And on smaller scales: what led Monsanto into huge losses in the late 1990s and ensured that Europe rejected genetically-modified food? What led Detroit to near-oblivion as they insisted on producing 1950s-style autos into the 21st century? What about the power company TEPCO and the nuclear disaster that the entirely predictable tsunami sparked in Japan?
Knowledge is building very fast, disciplines are converging, globalisation is changing the ground-rules of everything. Change powered by Moore’s Law, the digitisation process and the revolution in communication is driving shifts in the technical, economic and social order that most of us strain to grasp. Yet the faster change takes place and the greater its disruptive, innovative power, the harder it will be to make good choices.
So who should be party to the conversation? This is where the outliers come in; people who are articulate and serious, but outside the mainstream assumptions that generally drive conversations. Experts tend to resist the participation of thosewith unorthodox opinions. It needs to become the norm for them to sit round the table in every discussion. All articulate voices round the table; all the time.
This approach is hardly new. The century before last, US poet, essayist and journalist Walt Whitman asked the question his own way. “Have you learned the lessons only of those who admired you, and were tender with you, and stood aside for you? Have you not learned great lessons from those who braced themselves against you, and disputed passage with you?” In the 21st century, great value lies at the extremities of opinion; and we need to harvest it as we move through change faster than we have ever known before.
First appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald, June 9, 2011.