In times of Disruption, challenge your orthodoxies!

by Didier Marlier on Thursday June 1st, 2017

A famous toy company, the World Class Finnish education system and the winners of the European Rugby Champion’s Cup have in common the ability to identify the ‘Orthodoxies’ in their business and challenge them before it is too late.

  • Someone in the toy company voiced the opinion that to see a little girl enjoyably playing with cars and houses, with a little boy, wasn’t very credible in their advertising campaigns. So, the little girl disappeared from the publicity of that brand. That decision was a conscious one. What was far less conscious is the insidious impact it produced… Little by little the idea of having girls, or even adults, as clients, drifted away from the strategy. And at the end, the unconscious orthodoxy had become that the only customers the company was going after were young boys.
  • Today, I read an interesting article from the BBC on a revolutionary new way to design education at school, tested in various parts of Finland. It resonated strongly with me, as I clearly recognized the beliefs we have in the Enablers Network, and how we increasingly design our programs. I even had written a paper on this, for an Indian educational magazine (Reinventing the MBA). Finland regularly tops the international education rankings, including the famous PISA league table. The Finns have now decided to adapt school programs to prepare their children for the ‘Digital Age’. With that in mind, the new programs intend to teach skills more than traditional subjects. There are, of course, people who are uncomfortable with that change. Their main argument seems to be based on an old ‘pre-digital’ concern that a new system might see the country slip in its rankings. The unconscious orthodoxy could be that PISA is reflecting a past belief that subjects matter more than skills. So, falling in the PISA ranking should be a non-event if the ranking has become obsolete and no longer measures what is relevant to the Finnish children and the Nation’s Future.
  • Another very interesting article from The Times (May 16th) was dedicated to the rugby team of Saracens who have just retained their title of European Champions. The article makes it clear that “the secret to Saracens’ success is to not be obsessed by rugby”. Mathew Syed (an ex-athlete himself and author of the outstanding “Black box thinking” book), the journalist, explains that “they are trying to stretch their players, to develop them not just as rugby players but as leaders. They are a club who wants young men capable of using their initiative.” Quite radically different from this is the President of another club who recently told me “only performance counts” when talking about his players… Mathew continues explaining “When they are practising, they are not expected merely to carry out instructions shouted down from the coaches, but to make decisions and think creatively. As Mark McCall, the director of rugby, told me when I visited the club this season: “We want players who are not just technically skilled but who have character.” The orthodoxy that Saracens has identified and successfully challenged is the one which would see the players behaving like courageous lions during the game but be passive and obedient specialists during the rest of the week.

So what is an orthodoxy?

The Merriam Webster dictionary tells us that an orthodoxy is “the state of conforming to established doctrine especially in religion”. In business, our definition is very similar. A business orthodoxy is extremely dangerous as it is:

  • An “invisible, camouflaged sniper”: The main difficulty with an orthodoxy is that you never made a conscious choice about it. It is an unconscious and implicit decision that was never formally taken, so it is extremely difficult to challenge. It insidiously sneaks into our way of thinking and becomes a sacred cow that goes unchallenged, since no one knows it exists. Our partner, Michael Newman has created a fascinating simulation called “Tera Farma”. It has in fact very few rules or prohibitions. What always fascinates me is the amount of procedures and strict regulations which people build around it, crippling themselves (see our April 28th post “Is the rise and fall of organizations unavoidable?”) in heavy and useless administrative processes. They often set themselves up for failure by imposing strict limitations on each other’s intelligence. It is often a severe shock when they discover that they created the traps into which they fell and the most often heard comment is: “This is just like how we operate!
  • Resilient; it takes incredible courage, determination and critical thinking to go against it: “The Emperor’s New Clothes” tale by Hans Christian Andersen is a famous illustration of what happens in ‘Psychologically Unsafe’ environments until someone dares to speak up, if anyone ever dares to speak-up at all. People fear the fate that is reserved for most whistleblowers; social exclusion, bullying, mockery or rejection (ie. be fired).
  • A sort of ‘auto-pilot routine: Gary Hamel explains: “The first (step towards becoming truly disruptive) is to systematically deconstruct the orthodoxies and dogmas that rule a business. When people sit down and think about strategy, too often they take 90 or 95 percent of industry orthodoxies as a given and as a constraint. Instead, they must stare down their orthodoxies and determine that they are not going to be bound by them anymore. In effect, in looking for new directions, they are simply not going to start with the same old starting point.”

How not to fall in the lethal orthodoxy trap?

  • Create a psychologically safe culture where people will not be afraid to ask ‘stupid questions’ because they know they will be respectfully be addressed. This starts by practising the eight Value Building Behaviours (Listen Actively, Ask open Questions, Summarize, Support, Challenge, Clarify, Ask for Time-Out and Offer Feedback) identified by Professor Chris Parker during his days at IMD and mentioned in our book (Engaging Leadership). These are the surest way to create the famous ‘Psychological Safety’ that was identified by Google’s Aristotle Project to be the key differentiator between its successful and less successful project teams.
  • Think the impossible and analyse the ‘discourses of impossibilities’:  A classic of Business Schools games involves passing a ball between participants, faster each time. It is fascinating that when teams receive the instruction to do it faster, they often rapidly fall into the behavioural trends described by Professor Hamel (winning formula, play safe, orthodoxy) whereas those requested to cut their previous time in half, at each round, produce unorthodox and amazingly creative solutions. Leaders who provoke their teams in dreaming the impossible help their industry to free itself up from inefficient orthodoxies. Another approach, to check if there are no assumptions polluting a project, is to carefully listen to our people’s ‘discourse of impossibilities’. Contradictions, disagreements, opposite or conflicting views, often hide in themselves a high potential to uncover powerful orthodoxies. I was reported a story, apparently coming from the memories of Henri Kissinger, ex-Secretary of State. In a secret meeting held with then Israeli Prime Minister and Egyptian President El-Sadate, a blockage quickly emerged, for the two to continue discussing: The Egyptians wanted the Sinai Peninsula back, as a pre-condition which Israelis would totally reject. Through questioning and seeking to understand orthodoxies, the diplomat and his guests realized that the unconscious feelings below reclaiming or retaining the Sinai Peninsula were not opposing. Egypt made it a matter of national pride to get the land returned under its flag whereas Israelis saw retaining it as a matter of national security. The solution adopted then was to return the Sinai under Egyptian rule and ensure it would be a demilitarized zone. If Henri Kissinger let “Discourses of Impossibilities” lead the conversation, it would have stopped there.
  • Benchmark practices not results: I am always upset when clients proudly or guiltily show me a ‘results benchmark’ and attach great significance to it.… It is a fallacy. Benchmarks that compare your performance to others totally miss the opportunity to identify orthodoxies and hinder your route to disruptive success. In order to ‘benchmark for disruption’ you need to identify people who have similar challenges to yours but in a completely different sector. This is how we could help an airline company break away from its orthodoxies about in-flight service by observing the Formula 1 Pit stop process.

In times of disruption it is fundamental to identify and challenge our unconscious orthodoxies If not, we risk becoming collateral damage when an off-our-radar-screen competitor reinvents our industry.

I hope this fictional clip, about a leader about to sink his business unit, just because he was victim of an unconscious orthodoxy will make you smile… Not everything which appears on a vessel’s radar is another ship 😉

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