I like to collect examples of products that failed.
Some of them are utter commercial disasters (like Procter & Gamble’s ScentStories), while others are moderate successes that had been predicted to be game-changing inventions. My favorite example of this type is the Segway.
The Segway manages to stay balanced with a rider on it and allows that rider to traverse roughly walkable distances at a rapid pace. In the months prior to the release of the Segway, it was the subject of a hype storm that made the product seem like the most important new launch of the decade. In the event, the Segway has turned out to be popular with tour companies who provide guided trips through cities and people who have jobs that require a lot of walking like mall security guards.
The Segway is clearly a technological marvel, but apparently nobody involved in the project ever really stepped back to ask whether consumers would be willing to spend a few thousand dollars to buy a product that helps them achieve a goal that they can already satisfy for free. It would have been useful to have more people in the inner management team calling into question the core market assumptions at the basis of the business model.
It is not surprising that the folks at Segway were unable to temper their enthusiasm. In any organization, it is easy to see how the naysayers might be shunted to the side in favor of people who share the company’s vision. It can be demoralizing to have people around who find flaws with plans or question key assumptions. It is easier to talk with people who share your vision.
There is a real danger with working in a group made up of people who largely agree with each other. Research demonstrates that when you communicate with other people, you come to think more similarly to them, because in order to understand what they are saying, you have to think like they do. Even if you ultimately disagree with the conclusions they draw, you exit the conversation thinking more similarly to them than you did before.
If you are surrounded by people you agree with, then repeated conversations that affirm your existing beliefs can lead those beliefs (like the conviction that the Segway was going to be a runaway success) to become deeply entrenched. However, if you let some of the naysayers into your inner circle, then you have a force that consistently moderates your most extreme beliefs.
Recognizing the value of people whose opinions differ from your own is important, but it is even more important to create a group of people who will voice diverging opinions. To make that happen, you have to start by managing your own communication style. Do you talk about the strengths of ideas that differ from your own? Most people start their discussions of opinions that disagree with their own by finding reasons why that conflicting opinion is wrong.
There are two problems with initially focusing on what is wrong with conflicting ideas. First, when you start a conversation by looking at what is wrong with diverging opinions, it makes the people who expressed those opinions feel as though they are being attacked for their dissent. As a result, those individuals (and everyone else who is part of the conversation) will think twice before offering their opinions as readily in the future.
Second, thinking about the problems with opposing views means that you are unlikely to learn any lessons from these alternative perspectives.
Instead, when people raise objections, think before speaking. Spend the first few minutes talking about what is right about those objections.
- What are the potential pitfalls that those objections highlight?
- What is the evidence for the core assumptions that these objections call into question?
- Is there data you might gather to help you justify your current course of action?
After considering the strengths, you can turn to arguments against the diverging opinions people raise. Just because someone objects to a plan does not mean that the plan is wrong. It is fine to defend your own ideas. By taking that objection seriously, though, you maximize what you learn from it. You also publicly reward people for questioning assumptions, which increases the chance that other people will raise objections in the future. Finally, by conversing with dissenters, you help to moderate your own opinions, which can help to rein in runaway expectations.
For all of these reasons, it is important to surround yourself with people who think differently from you, and to create an environment that promotes a free exchange of ideas.