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EVP, Marketing at Specialty Print Communications

Against the Grain

By Dustin LeFebvre

About Dustin

A third-generation printer, Dustin LeFebvre delivers his vision for Specialty Print Communications as EVP, Marketing through strategy, planning and new product development. With a rich background ranging from sales and marketing to operations, quality control and procurement, Dustin takes a wide-angle approach to SPC


Are We Drinking Our Own Bathwater?

The printing industry is very much a closed network, an insular community dominated by those who have worked in it for decades. We recognize the same faces each time we return to drupa, GRAPH EXPO, or the Gold Ink Awards.

These longstanding industry relationships provide lots of benefits, including trust and a strong ecosystem to track reputations. Knowing many of the same people, we can more easily do the diligence necessary when hiring. Because we “speak the same language,” we can reduce the amount of management required on projects or in departments.

But this type of network comes with a side effect of groupthink. With groupthink, an etiquette filter generates an echo of what one thinks the other person wants to hear. We’re too polite. (Though some might assert that I am the exception here!) We don’t want to offend or contradict another’s previously held opinions, so we parrot what we believe will help us connect. We pander.

The result within our community is not the truth, but everyone’s polite interpretation of how they think they should play into others’ preconceptions. It becomes pathological, and it’s how we drink our own bathwater.

It’s a condition that is paralyzing. It prevents new ideas from taking root. It handcuffs line workers into performing the same tasks in the same way because “that’s the way it’s always been done.” It kills thought and turns humans into robots. Groupthink creates ignorant certainty—black-and-white delineations of the “right way” and the “wrong way.”

Last week, a client sent over an inline imaging self-mailer and provided gluing instructions. Knowing the client was sophisticated, customer service neglected to question or verify the directions. 

An hour into the makeready, the sales rep saw the piece, questioned its design, and brought it to our postal liaison. It was incorrect—the job would not have qualified for automation discounts and it would have needed to be reprinted. Fortunately, someone lifted his head out of the bathwater long enough to recognize the problem before it became an even bigger one.

The pathology is so strong, that even the Internet—which has enabled an unprecedented level of information sharing—is aggravating the problem. Rather than fostering more open communication and vibrant idea sharing, the breadth of voice available on the Web has further insulated many of us from divergent opinions.

As it turns out, most people are only reading things they know will support their existing position. The filter bubble “protects” them from having to think, much the same way that predictive analytics suggests NEW things based upon purchase HISTORY.

The pathology of certainty has even been proven to lead to increased levels of happiness, as described by Arthur Brooks in the New York Times. Partisans on either end of the political spectrum tend to be happier than those who believe in shades of gray because they find comfort in certainty. The extremes don’t stay up at night wondering about the answers they’re lacking. It may be a shallow comfort, but it is comforting nonetheless.

While ignorance can be blissful, it’s also how times and opportunities pass us by. We need to be careful to avoid groupthink while not losing the benefits of our tightly bound network. The solution isn’t simple.

How do you protect the efficiencies of closed networks while encouraging an open culture of new ideas and collaboration? Part of the answer simply comes down to the invocation of wisdom. We can keep our checklists and processes without losing the ability to improvise and correctly select the exception to the rule.

Barry Schwartz gave an inspirational talk at the TED conference in 2009 about how practical wisdom can help put a check on our ignorant certainty. He tells the story of a janitor working inside a hospital whose responsibilities in no way include patient care. But, out of empathy and practical wisdom, he managed to contribute to a better patient experience—not by doing what he’s “supposed” to do, but by doing what is right.

It sounds a lot like commonsense to me.

So how do we pop the bubbles that close our minds to the right way forward? How do we escape the bubbles formed in our own bathwater? Here are five ways (perhaps you have more you can share in a Comment):

1. Hire from outside the printing industry.

Outsiders will bring fresh perspectives and new solutions to old problems.

2. Network outside your comfort zone.

Go to a design conference. Join an alumni group and meet folks in other industries. Talk to your friends (not your colleagues) about your business challenges and, while you’re at it, make new friends!

3. Read.

Not just Printing Impressions (with apologies to my esteemed editors). But publications, books and blogs across a host of industries and interests. Expand your mind and you’ll expand your business at the same time.

4. Explore problems by employing “lateral thinking.”

Lateral thinking will help you find indirect solutions that, paradoxically, may be the most direct way to solve your problem. As an example, at SPC, we’re looking re-engineering our order entry process after having read about what IBM Credit did a while back.

5. Leverage the wisdom of the trenches.

Create an open dialog with people up and down your own workforce. If you create an open exchange of ideas where thinking outside the bubble is rewarded, you’ll be amazed at the creativity that can be unleashed. You may have your own “hospital janitor” in your midst.

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