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I’ve had the privilege of having a number of interesting bosses during my career. They’ve developed me, supported me, but most importantly, the best ones have challenged me on the orthodoxies I’ve held, moving my own thinking on the views I’ve held to that point.

The challenging of our orthodoxies is one of the most important factors in enabling and driving a real disruptive innovation strategy, both in life and in business.

Why? Without challenging orthodoxies there would be no innovation, no impetus for change.  

What is an orthodoxy?

Firstly, what do I mean by orthodoxy? Most simply, and really more relevant in a business context, orthodoxies are those constraints, artificial or imagined, that hold us back from driving real change. The ‘well that’s just the way it’s done around here’ principle that fixes people in a place and time that may have long passed.

People often think of orthodoxies as the big thorny challenge. Galileo challenging the church and the long-held belief of a geo-centric model; Henry Ford challenging the horse and cart; the Wright brothers trying to launch wood and canvas contraptions into the sky; all challenged the thinking of the day and came out ahead. Eventually.

Still not sure what I mean about orthodoxy? Look at this fantastic short film to understand how behaviours can become entrenched in your organisation. 

Orthodoxies in the vein of Galileo’s may seem like big challenges, life and society changing, and therefore acceptable in being slow to change, especially given that the norm was (and still is to a degree) not to challenge the societal status quo.

What happens if we don't challenge orthodoxies?

But what of an organisation’s orthodoxies? Still difficult to challenge, yes, but the impact of not doing so can be to the ultimate detriment of a business. Think I’m being overly dramatic? Not challenging orthodoxies and questioning why they do what they do has impacted and sped the demise of many organisations in our lifetime. Here are some classics that have become cautionary tales in business and outline some of the real risks to every business in this era of continual disruption. 

1. Let’s park this idea because it will cannibalise our existing product base

Kodak’s is an oft-told story, one that reflects the perils of failing to react to market changes. As an original disruptor, Kodak's innovation strategy gave us moving pictures, the Brownie, and the concept that memories could be captured, printed and stored for future generations to reflect back on their heritage. What a lot of people don’t know or forget is that Kodak also developed the original digital camera technology about 25 years ago, the very same technology that is at the heart of the success of smartphones, and supports the foundation of tools such as Instagram.

Kodak, at that point of their evolution, had invested heavily in film, and their innovation strategy had been on better quality film, how to get film developed more rapidly, and ensuring that there was sufficient infrastructure to support this model. They didn’t challenge their orthodoxies on whether this model would hold, what the impact of digital image capability on their business could be, or who in their competitive market might be developing this as a future business model. They couldn’t see past what they knew, what had held true for many years – they didn’t challenge their orthodoxies.

Think they’re an isolated case? Think about Nokia and the phone, smartphone phenomenon.

2. We’re the biggest player in the market, we aren’t that easy to beat

By the time Nokia had worked out that the smartphone was the way of the future, they were no longer part of that future. At one point, as the mobile phone leaders, they held 41% of the mobile market and set the standard – and didn’t think that the majority of the market wanted their phone to be more than a phone, or even a business tool to help people work smarter.  

By failing to challenge their own orthodoxy, and obstinately believing that their customers just wanted phones (AND despite having touchscreen technology already within their kitbag) they missed the consumer drive for ‘phones as productivity tools’ that Apple did so well. In fact they missed the boat completely and quite spectacularly. From 2007 at their peak, they recently only held 15% of the mobile phone market, and subsequently sold the business to Microsoft.

3. Yeah, but they were the big things that changed a generation, they don’t apply to us!

Isolated examples of the pitfalls for industry giants not seeing the forest for the trees? No. These are the spectacular stories that stand out, the brand names we recognise, that we’ve seen come and go, and that hold as cautionary tales for all. But do you recognise your own orthodoxies, especially when they’re ones that have become as fundamental as breathing in and out?

Kodak and Nokia assumed because they were leaders they’d remain so. That their brand value was enough and that because their customers trusted them and they had recognised products, that they were safe. But that argument doesn’t hold true any longer, especially as collectively we are less afraid, less skeptical of change, evolution and innovation.

10 years ago no one would believe we’d hail a stranger’s car as an alternative to a taxi, a stranger’s home as an alternative to a hotel. Today Uber and AirBnB are commonplace and are becoming accepted as the norm. The more we embrace these types of changes, the less afraid we become - opening the door for more and more disruptive innovation in every industry, every geography. 

Call to action: The Five Whys

Six Sigma has a great exercise that allows you to peel away the layers to find the ultimate ‘Why’. Think about the two-year-old’s propensity to ask ‘why’ mercilessly, and you’re getting to the heart of this exercise!

By repeatedly asking the question ‘Why’ (five times is a good rule of thumb) you can peel away the layers of symptoms that can lead to the root cause of a problem. Very often the perceived reason for your orthodoxy will lead you to another question. Although this technique is called ‘Five Whys’, you may find that you will need to ask the question fewer or more times than five before you find the issue related to a problem.

How to complete the Five Whys

  1. Write down the specific problem. My last blog included an exercise in writing your company's obituary. This is a great way to get a sense of the issue, the challenge to be addressed.
  2. Ask ‘Why’ this happens and write the answer down below the problem.
  3. If the answer you just provided doesn’t identify the root cause of the problem that you wrote down in Step 1, ask ‘Why’ again and write that answer down.
  4. Repeat step 3 until the team agrees that the problem’s root cause has been identified. 

An example may take the following form:

Challenge: Why do we still print out and send reams of paper contracts to customers when they purchase financial products? 

1st Why: Why do we need to ensure that a customer has printed documentation to support their purchase?

A: There are a lot of terms and conditions to be communicated and agreed and we need customers to sign off on this to ensure we follow compliance.

2nd Why: Why are printed copies that require a traditional signature the thing we need to ensure compliance? 

A: We don’t. We just haven’t thought about (or we think it’s not safe) how we might use electronic methods for customers to sign up to our terms and conditions to ‘seal the deal’ without paper. 

3rd Why: Why haven’t we thought about using electronic mediums to manage communication and compliance more effectively?  

A: Contracts are the end result of the process and that’s a task handled by a different group. 

4th Why: Why are contracts not produced as part of the overall process of securing the sale?  

A: We have customer data stored across multiple systems and multiple teams, with no capability to generate an electronic contract. 

5th Why: Why is our customer data split across systems and processes? 

A: When we bought/created solution X it used a different system and it cost too much to change the process as the customer base grew. 

This is one possible way the Why’s may be answered, and in this scenario what’s unearthed is the real orthodoxy; not that an alternative to paper contracts breaches compliance, rather the mindset of ‘That’s how it’s done’ prevails. 

This process may take fewer or more than five Whys, and it can be uncomfortable to really navel gaze and understand what you do to negatively impact your customer. 

However, without first challenging the collective ‘traditions’ of your organisation, you cannot drive change. And without change there is no innovation. 

Get challenging!

In the meantime, come and witness a year's worth of innovation in a day, at Salesforce World Tour London on May 19th!