• Jason Nisse

The boys in the bubble

Two completely different articles on two wildly different subjects piqued my attention and had me wondering about insularity and groupthink in major organisations.

Australia has been gripped by the ball tampering scandal in cricket, and in an excellently researched and incisive analysis, Jane Cadzow of The Age has gone to the heart of why a clean cut, universally respected hero like Australian captain Steve Smith would sanction blatant cheating.

The whole world has been impacted by the banking meltdown of 2007 and the wonderful Andrew Hill is now asking if bankers have forgotten the lessons of the past (spoiler alert: they have).

How are these related? In both cases you have groups of – almost exclusively – men who work, live and breathe on industry. (And yes, international sport is as much a business as banking, pharmaceuticals or aviation.) This means that they judge everything by the standard of their industry. Language that wouldn’t be understood by outsiders is the lingua franca. Salaries that would seem obscene in other sectors appear normal. Behaviour that might seem obsessional is interpreted as dedication.

What happens is that as people rise to the top of an industry, it becomes harder and harder for outsiders to break in. You see this in British politics, with an increasingly number of the top echelons being either career politicians or operating for years in the Westminster village.

However, all industries and organisations need outside input to give the “disinfectant of sunlight”. There is an argument that non-executive directors provide this, but the issues revealed by Sir Martin Sorrell’s exit from WPP Group show that NEDs are rarely able to secure the information they need to be an effective brake on strong business leaders.

Senior executives often say they want “challenge”. But their underlings rarely offer that for fear of being passed over for promotion or being fired. Worse, the culture of specialism leads to everyone increasingly thinking in the same way, because they’ve spent their entire careers in the industry (and careers start as young as nine if you are a sports star).

Outsiders can provide this challenge. I fund so often when I’m with a client that I spot something they don’t, not because they are stupid, but because they are used to operating in one direction (no, not them!).

The boys in the bubble need their assumptions to be pricked.

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