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PROFESSIONAL SERVICES/LEGAL | Contributed Content, Singapore
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Eric Romero

Conventional wisdom isn't wise for Singapore

BY ERIC ROMERO

Conventional wisdom is a major barrier to innovation that threatens the survival of companies in Singapore. It is based on the assumption that old ideas will work in the future, so they shouldn't be challenged.

While this may be a valid assumption in situations that do not change, it is unlikely to hold true in the changing situation that Singapore is currently experiencing. Emerging countries such as Myanmar, Cambodia and Vietnam all threaten Singapore’s prominent position in South East Asia.

In today's hyper changing global environment, old methods often don't work, and stubbornly using them can lead to major problems; including bankruptcy and liquidation.

Examples include Creative, K-mart, GM, Borders Books, Sears, Kodak, Circuit City, etc. Unfortunately, inflexible conventional thinking is common in Singapore, which might result in it becoming the long-term no growth Japan of South East Asia.

Most people implicitly agree with conventional wisdom because it gives one a false sense of security. If everyone else believes it, then it must be true.

Individuals who use conventional wisdom are certain that they are right, and being right is good. They want to continue using old ideas rather than take a risk with a change that might not work.

In 1977, Ken Olsen, co-founder and CEO of Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC), stated "There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in his home."

Despite being a dominant leader in the computer industry at the time, DEC no longer exists.

People seem to forget that since innovation is a change, there can be no innovation without change. Unfortunately, conventional wisdom prevents leaders, followers and companies from changing and therefore innovating.

If companies don't innovate, but their competitors do, the future is likely to be problematic. Breaking from conventional wisdom has led to many of the most innovative companies and products in history across many industries, so it has a powerful effect on business success.

Ted Turner (founder of CNN) knew little if anything about the news business, but he knew it was inconvenient to watch news only at the dinner hour; as was common before CNN.

Turner’s solution was to create a cable channel dedicated to news 24 hours a day. The news establishment reflected conventional wisdom at the time, and they said that his idea would fail because no one wanted to watch the news all day!

However, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand that viewers don’t have to watch the news all day for the CNN to work, viewers just have to watch when they want to get information.

Due to conventional thinking, the critics failed to recognize the opportunity that was clear to Ted. They assumed that only what was familiar to them could work in the future―a hallmark of conventional wisdom.

Their narrow thinking was also due to years of success using the “news at the dinner hour” model. Why change something has worked for so long?

In a prime example of unconventional leadership, Ted broke from conventional wisdom and the rest is history. CNN is now a recognized leader in the news business worldwide, and Ted is a billionaire.

Conventional management wisdom dictates that companies should only focus on what they know. Innovators reject this unnecessarily restrictive mindset.

Instead of focusing on computers, which is what Apple knew, under the unconventional leadership of Steve Jobs, Apple expanded into mp3 players, music distribution (iTunes), cell phones, tablets and retail.

Compare Apple to its competitors that follow conventional wisdom. HP is in serious trouble, Dell is just getting by and Sony laid-off 10,000 employees as part of its effort to return to profitability.

As of early 2013, Apple is the most valuable company in the world. Breaking from conventional wisdom can really pay off!

Given that conventional wisdom fails so often, it is amazing that anyone pays attention to it. Reversing this tendency requires unconventional leadership setting expectations that employees make decisions that fit the current situation, not blindly using what worked in the past.

Conventional wisdom prevents creativity, flexibility and risk-taking, so unconventional leaders enthusiastically break from it. Here are some ideas to help you start doing the same:

Breaking from Conventional Wisdom

Set the example of questioning conventional wisdom and anything else that you take for granted
Anything that impacts work and performance is fair game for discussion, re-evaluation and change (dress codes, work schedules, political correctness, etc.)

Encourage staff to look for great ideas in other industries, fields, etc.

Hire unconventional thinkers who challenge conventional wisdom and have creative ideas to replace it.
Recognize staff for trying things that break from conventional wisdom, even if they don't work

To survive, thrive and maintain competitive advantage, companies in Singapore must be flexible when reacting to change.

Stubbornly holding on everything that contributed to success in the past may lead to failure in the present and future. Think outside the box and break from conventional wisdom so you can innovate, survive and win. 

The views expressed in this column are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect this publication's view, and this article is not edited by Singapore Business Review. The author was not remunerated for this article.

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Eric Romero

Eric Romero

Eric J. Romero, PhD is an expert in Unconventional Leadership, Culture, Strategy & Innovation. He helps managers become unconventional leaders who innovate and beat the competition. Eric partners with them to create competitive advantage based on creativity, flexibility and risk-taking.

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