Monday Mornings with Madison

The Problem with Groupthink in Business, Part 1

Word Count: 1,540
Estimated Read Time: 6 min.

Long Life Differences and Individuality

Exactly what is Groupthink and why is it bad for business? Groupthink is the tendency of groups to make decisions that preserve the status quo rather than take dissenting opinions into account. It is a problem that affects many companies, and affects business in three ways.

  1. Groupthink compromises creativity and innovation because differing viewpoints are neither requested nor considered.
  2. Groupthink compromises the ability to make the best possible decisions because the best ideas are not allowed to compete on their own merit.
  3. Groupthink wastes one of the most valuable resources of any business:  diversity… the mix of personalities, knowledge and experiences on the payroll.  Here’s why.

Diversity of people = diversity of thoughts.

Diversity of thoughts = differences.

Differences = different viewpoints.

Different viewpoints = disagreement.

Why does Groupthink happen?  It usually occurs when employees are uncomfortable with conflict and feel reluctant to express differing opinions.  It happens when it is understood by staff (often in unspoken ways) that contradicting those in positions of power or favor is unwelcome and could be harmful to the person’s career.  And, it causes employees and supervisors to overlook potential problems in the pursuit of building consensus. When individual critical thinking is de-emphasized and initiative is stifled, employees may self-censor and not bring up alternatives or risks for fear of upsetting the status quo.

So what kind of companies suffer from Groupthink?  One might think that strong, opinionated and temperamental leaders cause Groupthink.  Some do and some don’t.  Case in point.  Steve Jobs, CEO of Apple, was known for his tongue-lashings, ballistic temper, and abrasive and condescending personality.  He was considered by many to be intimidating.  This might lead one to think that Groupthink was rampant at Apple.  Not so.  Jobs understood the value of different opinions.  He himself was a contrarian, bucking the system in order to innovate design and functionality.

The Most Successful Leaders Welcome Differing Opinions

Case in point.  Twenty-two years ago, Steve Jobs was rehired at Apple.  The company was in deep trouble and Jobs was brought back to save the proverbial sinking ship.  Among his first tasks was to change the way the world viewed Apple.  To accomplish that, Jobs chose advertising agency Chiat/Day to create an ad campaign to radically shift the narrative about Apple. In 1998, Apple launched the campaign titled Think Different.  The campaign became the catalyst that brought Apple back from the brink of disaster and positioned them as a force to be reckoned with in the tech industry.  It was a game-changer. Aside from its brilliance, the campaign — and how it came about – showcased how diverse thinking lies at the heart of all great ideas, and exemplified how being open to different opinions and voices lies at the core of a healthy decision-making process.

Here’s the story as told by Rob Siltanen, a former Partner at Chiat/Day who helped develop the famous campaign.  According to Siltanen, Jobs approached three ad agencies to pitch ideas for the Apple account.   At Chiat/Day, all of the creative teams in the entire agency were asked to develop ideas.  It wasn’t restricted to just the A-Team or the CEO’s favorites.  And, unlike the usual process, no time was wasted on writing out strategy or creative briefs.  They went straight to brainstorming and crafting concepts.  A week later, all of the creative teams at Chiat/Day gathered in their large Conference Room to go over a multitude of ideas.  All of the work was tacked up on the wallboards.  According to Siltanen,

“The room was filled with photos, pencil sketches, rough ideas and taglines. You know that scene in the movie “A Beautiful Mind” where the room is plastered with paper on every inch of wall space? Well, during a new business pitch or preparation for a big project, our conference rooms typically looked like that. This pitch was no exception. Four different creative teams had work represented, and virtually all of it was mediocre… But there was one campaign that jumped out at me. And it jumped out in a big way.”

Like most top advertising agencies, the leadership at Chiat/Day understood the value of having different voices and viewpoints contributing concepts.  While most of the ideas presented were nothing special, one idea stuck out…. and it wasn’t an idea generated by Siltanen or Chiat/Day’s CEO / Chief Creative Officer Lee Clow.  It was an idea generated by one of their teams of creatives.  According to Stiltanen,

“It was a billboard campaign that had simple black and white photographs of revolutionary people and events. One ad had a photo of Einstein. Another had a photo of Thomas Edison. Another had a photo of Gandhi. Another had the famous photo of flowers placed in gun barrels during the protest of the Vietnam War. At the top of each image was the rainbow-colored Apple logo and the words “Think Different.” Nothing else.

The creator of the work was a brilliant art director named Craig Tanimoto. Craig had worked with me for many years… and he virtually always had a unique way of looking at things…. Craig’s campaign seemed big and fresh in a room that was filled with classic computer shots and stereotypical celebrity photos. I loved it. But at the same time, the work seemed in need of explanation.

I asked Craig what it all meant, and he said, ‘IBM has a campaign out that says Think IBM (it was a campaign for their ThinkPad), and I feel Apple is very different from IBM, so I felt Think Different was interesting. I then thought it would be cool to attach those words to some of the world’s most different-thinking people.’  The rainbow-colored logo served as stark contrast to the black and white photography, and, to me, it seemed to make the Think Different statement all the more bold. It was the exact kind of attention-getting and thought-provoking advertising Apple desperately needed.”

Stiltanen and Clow both liked the idea immediately.  And when they pitched it to Steve Jobs, he loved it, choosing it over the multiple ideas presented by two other top ad agencies.  But, when they tried to use the music and images that had been presented in the rough draft of the pitch, it was too long and did not work as a 60-second commercial.  There was no practical way to shorten it without ruining the concept.

Chiat/Day was forced to create a new script for the Think Different television commercial. When they started over, Siltanen wrote the initial new script for what became the award-winning commercial titled Crazy Ones, which explained what it meant to Think Different.  (If you never saw that commercial, Google it.)  When they initially played it for Jobs, though, he hated it, vehemently!  He was insulting and dismissive. Clow told Jobs they would fix it.  Other creative talent was brought in rework the script.  But, after many attempts, Jobs finally realized that Stiltanen’s original script was exactly what was needed and used it with only some minor tweaks by writer, Ken Segall.

Many other people went on to work on the Think Different campaign and the Crazy Ones commercial.  Besides Clow, Stiltanen, Tanimoto and Segall, there were a host of other talented people at Chiat/Day who contributed to Apple’s campaign including Yvonne Smith, Margaret Midget Keen, Jessica Shulman, Jennifer Golub and Dan Bootzin, Monica Karro, Duncan Milner, Eric Grunbaum and Susan Alinsangan.  The campaign was the product of diverse talents collaborating to distill the best outcome.  Jobs kept an open mind and listened to a plethora of voices in the process.

When the campaign launched, some loved it and some criticized it.  In hindsight, though, most would now agree that it was genius.  Consider the results.  The campaign itself won many awards, and the Crazy Ones won several commercial-of-the-year honors including the 1998 Emmy for Best Commercial.  And, consider the results of the campaign for Apple.  In 1997, when the Think Different campaign launched, Apple immediately got a sales boost despite having no new products.  Within 12 months, Apple’s stock price had tripled.  A year after Think Different launched, Apple introduced their multi-colored iMacs, which became one of the best-selling computers in history.  Most importantly, Apple went from being a company in deep trouble in 1997 to being ranked the most valuable company in the world by 2012 and remained so for seven years, until 2019 when Amazon overtook the top spot and Apple fell to #2.  Their 15-year turnaround began with Jobs, the Think Different campaign and a culture where multiple ideas were sought, all ideas were welcome – and given due consideration — and where the best ideas won regardless of who proffered it.  In his article, Stiltanen wanted to set the record straight about who was responsible for the campaign, but he readily admitted that it took many minds, many ideas and a lot of contributions from different talents to create and realize the campaign.  Jobs knew it too.

The best companies know that it is imperative to avoid Groupthink in order to tap into the diverse ideas and talents any group brings.  But, Groupthink is a problem that infects most organizations.  So how does a company prevent it?  Stay tuned for our next issue to find out what a company needs to do to avoid Groupthink.


Quote of the Week

“Sheep wish no taste but woolly sweet conformity.” Kevin Focke


© 2019, Written by Keren Peters-Atkinson, CMO, Madison Commercial Real Estate Services. All rights reserved.

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