5 Ways to Buck Your Organization’s Conventional Wisdom

According to Merriam Webster, conventional wisdom can best be defined as the “generally accepted belief, opinion, judgment, or prediction about a particular matter”.  While conventional wisdom can be interesting – and can sometimes informative – conventional wisdom is not necessarily true. And, in fact, you can actually change your organization’s culture around conventional wisdom.

However, conventional wisdom is typically deeply embedded into an organization’s DNA & culture and can be really hard to understand. The “this is the way we’ve always done things” mentality can be one of the biggest and most intractable barriers to driving adoption to change.  It’s often imperative that you drive a change in mindset when you’re asking your organization to adopt something new (a new strategy, process, or system, for example).

If you’re seeking ways to overcome the conventional wisdom in your organization, remember these 5 key steps:

  1. Name it. What exactly is the conventional wisdom at play in your organization? In her book “Make Waves: Be the One to Start Change at Work and in Life,” Patti Johnson lists examples that resonate with me, including “all changes have to start at the top”; “change is something that happens to us” and “if I build it/ sell it, they will come”. What are the “norms” in your culture? They may not be ones you agree with or support, but an honest appraisal of what they are is a critical starting point.
  2. Define the group/ individual behavioral outcomes that conventional wisdom creates. Once you can name it, you can analyze it and define exactly how this plays out on an everyday basis. For example, “all changes start at the top” might play out as people not submitting innovative ideas or suggesting process improvements for fear of being shot down, especially in cultures where executives are revered and changes really are driven from the top-down. Understanding the specific behavior that results from the acceptance of conventional wisdom is a big part of the foundation in taking action to change it.
  3. Identify what supports/ sustains it. What are the underlying structures that enable conventional wisdom to be generally accepted? One of the first places I typically look is at performance management/ recognition & reward systems. At many of my clients, I’ve seen examples where performance management practices encourage and/or reward the wrong behaviors. In our “all changes start at the top” example, maybe incentives/ bonuses aren’t offered for truly innovative ideas. And – don’t forget to take a hard look at the behavior of your leaders when identifying how conventional wisdom is supported.
  4. Validate it by gathering honest feedback. After you’ve done your analysis and have built your theories about your conventional wisdom, get some outside input. Run a focus group or an informal poll (with an outside/ neutral monitor if helpful) to understand if your theories are correct and make sure they are shared/ resonate with others outside of your group. It’s especially important to gather input across all levels of your organization as perceptions may vary based on different organizational silos or by job role/ level.
  5. Create an action plan. Identify specific actions that you can take to tackle the broader, structural issues, which may take some time. Remember to also find great examples of individuals who role model the behavior you’re trying to promote and identify ways to call them out as great examples.

Finally, don’t forget to build authentic communications and good stories into your communications about your change effort. By following the steps outlined above, you’ll collect a wealth of good data and information that will be hugely helpful as you make your case for change.

Sheri Browning is a Partner at PeopleResults. You can reach her at sbrowning@people-results.com or on Twitter @sbPResults.