06 Jun 2022

Beyond bubbles and groupthink

Seeing your company as others see it is the hardest thing, says Mike Rigby, CEO of MRA Research, part of MRA Group, but it contributes the most valuable insights.

Sergei Naryshkin, chief of Russia’s foreign intelligence service; Nikolai Patrushev, national security adviser; Sergei Shoigu, defence minister; and Aleksandr Bortnikov, domestic spy chief are President Putin’s dark lords of the siloviki. They’re the advisor buddies in Putin’s bubble, the ‘yes men’ he listens to.

These are the guys, according to The New York Times, who say outlandish things and believe them. They say Ukraine’s leaders are as bad as Hitler, and its nationalists are ‘nonhumans’.

Someone else’s bubbles, or groupthink, feel strange at first. Some bubbles seem extreme. But to insiders, who build their everyday consensus inside the echo chamber, it’s reality, what everyone thinks. And the longer they’re in the bubble the harder it is to maintain their original perspective. Within a short time most become part of the consensus and see through the eyes of the group.

Strong companies work hard at fostering a winning culture for the cohesion that accompanies it, because cohesion helps them succeed. The signalling can be less than subtle. In its prime, new arrivals at IBM who didn’t pick up the dress code would come into the office to find six new white shirts – in their size, with no additional message – sitting on their desk!

If markets change slowly and the company is doing well, there’s no incentive to change a winning formula. But if the company is not doing well, or its markets are changing quickly, or significantly, as most markets have been doing in the last two years and are expected to do in the near future, the company can lose its competitive advantage, its customers and market share. By the time they start asking why, it can be too late. In any case, going against the grain of groupthink can be ‘challenging’ at any time.

Part of the problem is bubbles often includes close customers, so the team gets constant reassurance and feedback. How can they be out of step with their needs when they’re getting a thumbs up? But the close customers they listen to inhabit the same bubble as they do, and share many of the same values and views as the company. Many are pals and have been loyal customers for years. So how representative are they of customers as a whole?

Markets are changing and customers’ needs are changing massively as they adapt. Many companies do their own research and ask their customers’ views by email or online surveys, but without setting quotas to control the numbers, which are often way below the necessary threshold, and the structure, they’re likely to be unrepresentative of the customer base. Disproportionately, it tends to be your pals who support your invitation to contribute their views. If you’re not careful it becomes a closed circle and a missed opportunity to learn.

The risks of ignoring changing markets and either guessing or relying on feedback from friends, or compounding the risks by believing the results of flawed research can be painful. Anyone can use Mailchimp or SurveyMonkey and fire off a survey. But if it’s not done right, a simple questionnaire and a proprietary delivery and analysis tool can do more harm than good. You’ve ticked all the boxes you know about, but if you think you know what you’re doing and you don’t, it could be a costly own goal.

How could Putin have got so much so wrong, people wonder? Bubbles, that’s how.

Do you need help to see objectively from beyond your bubble? Email ralph@mra-research.co.uk to get at the facts.