Flipping Orthodoxies: Overcoming Insidious Obstacles to Innovation

Latest word works, for Rotman Magazine. You can see the whole piece (PDF) on Monitor’s site. The abstract is here:

When it comes to innovation, sometimes organizations need to get out of their own way. Orthodoxies, or tightly held beliefs that guide a company’s decisions, can seem as innocent as going along with “the way we do things around here,” or simply following the industry standard regarding the business model and customer experience. However, orthodoxies can be insidious and dangerous to a company’s success, write Monitor’s Bansi Nagji and Helen Walters in the Fall 2011 issue of Rotman Magazine, published by the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto.

There are two types of orthodoxies, internal and external. In discussing internal orthodoxies, Nagji and Walters present the case of Ford, whose tight-lipped managerial culture was losing the company billions of dollars a year. This internal orthodoxy was successfully conquered by Alan Mulally, who became Ford’s president and CEO in 2006 and urged managers to give honest reports of the status of their projects. When discussing external orthodoxies, the authors cite companies like Southwest Airlines, which flipped the airline industry model on its head, using one type of jet to cut maintenance costs and flying point to point instead of through major airport hubs.

Nagji and Walters also present five steps to flipping orthodoxies: Be ruthless about finding them; ask “why not?” to challenge preconceived ideas on a regular basis; widen your field of vision by looking in unfamiliar settings to see where orthodoxies have been flipped to learn new ideas; be a credible heretic by acknowledging the orthodoxy’s origins and recognizing the potential ramifications for change; and recognize those who dare to flip orthodoxies.

Finding and overturning orthodoxies is no easy task, however. “There is a fine line between a winning formula and hardwired assumptions that constrain a business,” the authors write. “But through careful assessment and conscious choices, you can discern between self-imposed limitations and the true cornerstones of your enterprise.”