In the essay, best-selling author Laurence Gonzales discusses epic failures. The Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company (A&P), for example, grew from an 1850s Manhattan storefront to the world's largest retailer. In the United States, it dominated retail food sales for sixty years, from 1915 through 1975. If you're a boomer, there's a good chance that your mother dragged you to A&P for the weekly shopping.
But no more. A&P continues to operate a modest number of stores in the Northeast, but only after years of decline, bankruptcy, and restructuring. Stores continue to close, and the company's future is uncertain. What happened to A&P?
According to Gonzales, the company was too cloistered to keep up with changing times. A&P developed an unbeatable marketing strategy to serve customers during two world wars and a depression. But the 1950's brought new economic conditions and changed customer demand. Why couldn't A&P recognize the changes and adapt? The company's post-WWII leader, Ralph Burger, lived by the motto "You can't argue with a hundred years of success." A&P's executives were so sure of their own strategy that they ignored the company's own marketing tests.
Unfortunately, what worked for the first hundred years didn't pan out for the next fifty. Other organizations--Kroger, Wal-Mart, Amazon--stole away A&P's customer base. In retrospect, it seems obvious that the 1950's and 2000's were different economic eras than the 1870's or 1930's. Why couldn't savvy business professionals see the obvious?
A key reason, Gonzales suggests, was "groupness." A&P's executives spoke mostly to one another. They bonded over the company's longstanding success and reinforced their pride in proven methods. Group identity naturally produces hostility to those outside the group. A&P's leaders identified innovative thinkers as outsiders and treated them with disdain. As their leader frequently said, you couldn't argue with the company's century-long success.
Smart, talented, and conscientious people are particularly prone to groupness. That's because, according to Gonzales: "If a group invests a lot of effort in a goal and succeeds, its boundaries become stronger, and it tends to become even more hostile to outside influences. This may not be overt hostility. It may simply be a subtle and unconscious tendency to reject anything from another group." Smart, talented, and conscientious people are exactly the type to invest a lot of effort in their projects. When they do, and when the projects succeed, they face the danger of unconsciously adopting group resistance to any change.
The dangers deepen the longer a group has shared success. Members of new groups (rebels and innovators) continue communicating with people outside their immediate circle. More established organizations lose their communication with others; they become insular and dysfunctional.
How bad can it get? How about using a doomed vehicle to blast humans into space? Gonzales revisits NASA's infamous failures to correct obvious flaws in its shuttle equipment. What were they thinking? "The astounding effort and success of the Apollo program," Gonzales observes:
had created a culture like that at A&P. NASA defined itself as technically excellent—"the perfect place," as one researcher called it. They put a man on the moon, and it was hard to argue with success. The insidious message was: We know what we’re doing. The corollary to that is: You can’t tell me anything I don’t already know.The final report on Columbia's crash noted that "[e]xternal criticism and doubt" only "reinforced the will to ‘impose the party line vision on the environment, not to reconsider it.'" NASA's executives, in other words, responded with perfect groupness: Bonded by their past success, they rejected any criticisms with hostility.
Legal education, unfortunately, shows all of the signs of groupness. How many times have you heard a law professor say: "We've been using the case method for more than a century. You can't argue with a hundred years of success!" How often have you heard administrators and faculty revel in the excellence of their schools and programs? How often does your law school, as described internally, sound like the "perfect place"? How often do you hear faculty attacking the "naive" suggestions of practitioners, students, alumni, and other outsiders?
It's important to be proud of our accomplishments; but it's vital to avoid groupness. During the last year, I've seen many welcome signs of law schools waking to the need for serious change. But I've also seen signs of resistance, of increased chest thumping and declarations of excellence. As we welcome the new year, let's embrace the lesson that A&P never learned: After a hundred years, times change.
Update [LP]: See also.