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University of Massachusetts Amherst

Family Business Center

Get Off The Same Page!

by Ira Bryck

In 1923, George Mallory prepared his extraordinary, ambitious climb up Mount Everest, and wittily understated his reasoning: “Because it is there.”

When his frozen body was discovered in 1999, it wasn’t clear he reached the top. Nonetheless, it was not a success, if judged by the criteria of his son, John: “The only way you achieve a summit is to come back alive. The job is half done if you don't get down again.'

Likewise, a certain pilot expressed that his preoccupation throughout the flight is a great landing. The best takeoff, the smoothest flight, is ruined by a fiery crash. Again: “Begin with the end in mind.”

Should this dissuade the business venturer, who fails at an astounding rate? 2/3 of family businesses fail into the 2nd generation (85% into the 3rd); most businesses fail after 24 years, on average; almost none past 40, etc.

Depressing news, but entrepreneurs are optimists, sure they’ll beat Death. And not to begin with “Going Out of Business” in mind, but there may be a benefit to considering the big causes of death, to build one’s immunity, to make one’s risk less risky.

A new book, The Wisdom of Crowds, describes a British agricultural fair that featured a contest involving guessing the weight of an ox. 800 speculators all bet wrong, but a passing statistician found that the mean of those guesses was only one pound off from the correct 1198 pounds. Hence, all of us are smarter than any of us.

So should we average the business playbooks of our human resource, and head down the middle of the business minefield?

Yes, if not for the fact that groups of even collective geniuses are prone to what social psychologist Irving Janis termed Group Think.

In a nutshell, there is a tendency of groups of us to become frozen by (1) imagining we’re invulnerable, ignoring danger and risk (2) collectively rationalizing our decisions, discrediting minority thinking (3) assuming we are morally correct, ignoring ethical consequences (4)stereotyping our rivals, ignoring their wisdom (5) viewing opposition as disloyalty (6) withholding our dissenting views (7) then perceiving falsely that everyone agrees (8) and protecting the group from adverse information that might threaten our complacency.

If you were to wish a flaming crash on a competitor, there would be no better threat to inflict than Group Think. And yet, that doomed company might describe themselves as “on the same page,” “a strong culture” or “one big happy family business.”
There is less risk in high interest, outsourcing, and even nepotism than there is in the fear of difficult conversations. The most pressing job of business owners is to construct a vessel propelled by group wisdom, not group think; so you can enjoy the ascent and the voyage; and that your landing not be the subject of a clever eulogy.

Ira Bryck is Director of the UMass Amherst Family Business Center, a non-commercial learning community of business owning families. The website, www.umass.edu/fambiz has current information about the center’s activities and benefits, and is the world’s largest free resource of family business wisdom.

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