I don’t like Paranoia. Excessive fear of other people is a major social problem and encouraging it is just plain wrong.
Thus I’m not a fan of Andy Grove’s “Only the Paranoid Survive” (Grove 1996). It is not that there aren’t decent stories in his book. Grove had a fascinating career and there are useful lessons but the key lesson can’t be that you should be paranoid. The whole point of paranoia is that it is a false belief. If I understand Grove he says that in a competitive market rivals will be trying to produce better products than you. Is this paranoia or just common sense?
Of course Grove probably doesn’t technically mean paranoia. The Merriam Webster definition is “1) a psychosis characterized by systematized delusions of persecution or grandeur usually without hallucinations or 2) a tendency on the part of an individual or group toward excessive or irrational suspiciousness and distrustfulness of others”. But if Grove didn’t mean paranoia it is a shame he used the word. English has a plethora of other words that would have better conveyed his meaning.
For instance I call Grove’s idea no-cost hypervigilance. Hypervigilance is the “the condition of maintaining an abnormal awareness of environmental stimuli” (Merriam Webster). This captures his point that you must pay constant attention to your competitors. We are all a little self obsessed so being reminded to consider what others are up to can be useful.
That said Grove’s advice remains problematic. Why? The key is “no-cost”. An Amazon reviewer captured the good and bad of Grove’s advice — “Always look over your shoulder”. Remember however that keeping your head turned backwards is great if you want to know what is coming up behind you but it is a terrible idea if you are supposed to be focusing on the road ahead.
We shouldn’t just pretend being hypervigilant doesn’t have a cost. When hypervigilant you can’t concentrate properly on what you are doing as you are constantly looking at what everyone else is up to. Furthermore you never go home to your family as you are jittery and obsessed with your competitors. (Perhaps that is the right choice for you, who am I to judge, but it clearly isn’t cost free). Ignoring the cost of any action is bad advice. Business is all about balancing costs and benefits. You can’t do everything so you must prioritize and not just wish away the hard choices.
Sometimes worrying about your competitors makes sense, sometimes you should just chill out. Perhaps Grove should have called his book, “Sometimes hypervigilance is a good thing and sometimes it isn’t”. Maybe he initially proposed that but I understand why the publisher probably wasn’t as excited about that title.
Read: Andrew Grove, Only the Paranoid Survive, 1996, Doubleday Business.