Nick Bush and Charles Bennett find that under-performing teams invariably persist with the wrong underlying beliefs.
How many times have you seen a company or team consistently underperform yet carry on with the same hopeless strategies that got them in a mess in the first place? All the evidence screams “change direction” but they carry on cantering towards the abyss and nobody is even trying to stop them.
It happens in any group that has been created to deliver against its ambitions. Sport provides many examples: Nick has been a supporter of Harlequins rugby club for the last 10 years, and has watched a once brilliant team go downhill and apparently refuse to change direction to address their slump. This year their performance has been so woeful he has vowed not to renew his season ticket until matters improve.
Whilst many reasons for this slump have been offered by the supporters, our hypothesis is that the team is suffering from what we call “collective delusion”.
In the corporate world we’ve seen this many times over the years. This is the thinking which makes otherwise highly intelligent rational people persist in doing the wrong thing in the hope that times will change, and it will support their collective aim – even when the evidence suggests that it is not working.
The Harlequins approach illustrates our point. They built their initial success on fast-flowing, high-speed rugby which is thrilling to watch and, in the past, has won them a Premiership title. They have many highly talented players who are good enough to play for England on a regular basis
So, what is going wrong?
With a talented squad and a long-term track record of stylish rugby, you’d expect their performance to be in the top end of the league table not near the bottom. The essence of the problem is not what they are doing it’s what their competition is doing to outsmart them seemingly on a weekly basis.
In short, the competition has to a degree learned from and adopted the strengths of the Harlequins style but, developed an edge. They have learned how to defend against them. They did not have to be the outright most effective attackers, but they need to blunt a side which focussed on attack but suffered in defence. The results are history. Meanwhile the strategies stay the same, the fans suffer – and yet – the answer is so obvious.
Why do intelligent rational people persist with what is obviously not working?
As individuals we all have a view of the world. We call it reality but it’s actually a distortion. It’s our own personal view – nothing more. Personal beliefs often distort what all the obvious feedback is telling us, for example:
- It worked in the past – if we can just hone a little bit more – it will work again
- I did not get to where I am by giving up at the first sign of failure. Winston Churchill said, “never give up on something that you can’t go a day without thinking about”. Winners don’t get to the top by giving up!
Can you see how this distortion of “beliefs vs evidence” works? Which wins?
How does an unshakeable belief turn into a collective delusion?
A German professor of customer experience stood up in a room in front of a group of business heads and said “99% of you are followers. You question very little and as a result you will follow everybody else”.
You would expect there to be negative reaction around the room. There was none. No umbrage taken – just curiosity to know more.
When you dissect collective delusion some very interesting points come through:
- Best practice is a collective delusion. Any top performer will tell you that best practice is your start point. You can’t win if you do exactly the same things everybody else has done
- The traditional corporate structure – shaped as a triangle or a pyramid supports collective delusion. If you are applying for a job and we don’t have shared beliefs you don’t join. Controlling collective delusion is much easier in a command and control structure than a team collective. Corporates often celebrate “speaking in one voice” – especially if joining them means you get paid handsomely.
- Collective delusion spelt the end of some very notable corporate names because the collective delusion was downright crooked. Names like Enron spring to mind.
Collective delusion is everywhere. It creates teams that overperform because they work harder on what customers ultimately want and need. It creates teams that go astray when all the evidence points otherwise.
Banking on failure?
Bringing it back to business, we’d hazard a guess that the recent TSB debacle was evidence of a collective delusion: in this case, that the risks of system failure at cutover had been adequately mitigated.
However, reading that the problems may have been known over a year ago makes us think that the combination of a firm deadline to move from their legacy platform to the new system would have overridden any dissenting voices in the organisation saying that they needed more time – IT people always say that don’t they?
The real leadership to avert a potential disaster can often be found within the organisation.
Finding and empowering those voices is real leadership.
There are three lessons that have come out of this:
- Align your beliefs on the people who really matter. Your customers. Not at a high or summary level – but too a detail of understanding that is beyond any of your competition. Whilst I’m on it – don’t think that data will get you to that understanding! Yes, that’s another collective delusion at work J
- Lead don’t manage. Find and empower those people in your organisation – the answers are often much closer than you think.
- Be aware that beliefs, no matter how strong, are your own view of the world – nothing more! Flexibility in adversity wins the day more often than ploughing the pre-determined, but losing, course that heroic stories are built on.
Oh – and to emphasise one final point – don’t build your business success on the biggest collective delusion of them all: best practice. Make it your starting yardstick and make the effort to think differently. The world is changing too fast for you to afford not to!