Question Conventional Wisdom

June 22, 2010

One of the biggest innovation blockers comes in the form of conventional wisdom. That’s why I always try to question generally accepted ideas or explanations. While not all commonly held beliefs are wrong… all should be questioned. Just because an authority makes a statement or the general public accepts a belief, it doesn’t make it true. It just makes it accepted… at least for the moment. In 1773 King George II said the American colonies had little stomach for revolution. Oftentimes conventional wisdom is simply wrong. The evidence to support this claim seems endless; consider these examples:

“Everything that can be invented has been invented.” ~Charles H. Duell, an official at the US patent office, 1899

“X-rays will prove to be a hoax.” ~Lord Kelvin, President of the Royal Society, 1883

“Louis Pasteur’s theory of germs is ridiculous fiction.” ~Pierre Pachet, Professor of Physiology at Toulouse, 1872

“I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.” ~Thomas J. Watson, Chairman of the Board of IBM, 1943

“With over 50 foreign cars already on sale here, the Japanese auto industry isn’t likely to carve out a big slice of the U.S. market.” ~Business Week, 1958

“The ordinary ‘horseless carriage’ is at present a luxury for the wealthy; and although its price will probably fall in the future, it will never, of course, come into as common use as the bicycle.” ~Literary Digest, 1899

“There is not the slightest indication that nuclear energy will ever be obtainable. It would mean that the atom would have to be shattered at will.” ~Albert Einstein, 1932

“This ‘telephone’ has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication. The device is inherently of no value to us.” ~Western Union internal memo, 1876

“Fooling around with alternating current is just a waste of time. Nobody will use it, ever.” ~Thomas Edison, American inventor, 1889

“Rail travel at high speed is not possible because passengers, unable to breathe, would die of asphyxia.” ~Dr. Dionysys Larder, professor of Natural Philosophy and Astronomy, 1793-1859

Today these statements seem preposterous. How could experts be so wrong? Did the general public really accept this thinking? Yes. Just like many people do today.

While conventional wisdom is sometimes hard to spot, its defenders often expose it by trying to discredit and suppress people who threaten it… like those with contrary views, new information or alternative answers. When defenders have little evidence or logic to justify their positions, they often attack truth seekers as they represent the greatest threat. In addition, defenders sometimes resort to manipulation, clichés and propaganda to build support for their beliefs. For example, some politicians and their followers chant “Drill Baby Drill” to reinforce the conventional wisdom regarding our national security, independence and need for more oil. While simple repetition proves nothing, it does rally the troops and reinforces conventional wisdom. The ongoing oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico has many Americans reconsidering this chant and the conventional wisdom it proclaims regarding the need for more oil.

Whether it’s energy, healthcare, business or an interpersonal struggle you’re going through… it’s important to remain cognizant and not simply default to the quick, simple and convenient answers conventional wisdom offers. While eliminating independent critical thinking may be tempting… it’s rarely a good solution. At some point, conventional wisdom is always confronted by reality. If it aligns well enough, it stays; if it doesn’t, it’s replaced by new thinking. This cycle has been in place since the beginning of recorded history. It is maintained by those who blindly follow conventional wisdom, by those who defend it, by those who question it… and by those who change it and create new realities. Where do you fall within this cycle?

Harmony Requires Honesty

June 3, 2010

Back in high school I played drums and sang in a few different bands. One of the bands played mostly Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, Alice Cooper, Cream… you get the idea.

One day we were jamming when Jim, our lead guitarist, started playing Happy Together by the Turtles. It was funny at first… but then we all joined in and something clicked. While it was outside our genre, something about this song resonated with us. In fact, our version of Happy Together not only sounded great… it was fun to play. So now what? How do you transition from Black Dog and Iron Man to Happy Together? We weren’t certain, but we had an upcoming gig and decided to find out.

It was the night before the event and we had been practicing hard all week. Since we hadn’t performed Happy Together publicly, we decided to go over it a few more times. Jim was/is a talented musician and he had figured out all the harmonies, including a great three-part harmony for the “Ba-ba-ba…” part. (If you’ve never heard this song… you can do so below.)

Oh yes, there’s something I neglected to mention… it was for good reason that our bass guitar player rarely sang. He was notoriously off-key and pitchy (I’m being polite). Perhaps that’s what amazed Jim and me the most about us playing Happy Together… he actually sang one of the harmony parts.

Back to practice… I was singing lead and Jim was singing background harmony when we reached this part of the song…

Me and you and you and me
No matter how they toss the dice, it has to be
The only one for me is you, and you for me
So happy together

Then we all jumped in… Ba-ba-ba…

Before we could hit the second, Ba-ba-ba… line, Jim stopped playing, turned and looked directly at me. Accept for the ring in our ears, the room was silent. Read more

Beyond Labels

May 21, 2010

An author, enigma, husband, lazy, philosopher, stupid, intelligent, uncle, dreamer, kind, father, sincere, creative genius, son, public speaker, radical, friend, loving, designer, liberal, conservative, insightful, extremist, smart ass, brilliant, idiot, businessman, brother, left-wing, right-wing… these are some of the words and labels people have used to describe me over the past year. Some have been shared directly, others behind my back. While some labels are more objective and useful to communicate, others are subjective and open to interpretation. Notice the contradictions in my labels? That’s because they are projections. Labels reflect as much about the labeler as they do the person being labeled. Since I put little merit in subjective labels, I try not to let them influence my thinking. As people we are more than labels… and reality always trumps words.

While labels simplify the world, provide context and help us organize our thoughts, they don’t define reality. In business, people are given titles to describe a role or position. These labels don’t describe who they are, or what they’re capable of doing. The same holds true with children. Have you ever heard a conversation along these lines?

“My daughter is gifted… she’s in all the advanced classes!”

“That’s wonderful, my son is LD… actually, he’s ADD… and in special classes.

“My oldest son is ADHD and he went on to college. My daughter is average… she’s getting by in regular classes… if she worked harder she could be in AP courses.” Read more

John Deere’s Pink Bat

February 2, 2010

Deere & Company was founded in 1837. Since its humble beginnings, it has grown into an international corporation that today employs approximately 56,000 people throughout the world.

A few years back, Deere hired me to design a coffee table book that would capture its rich history and more importantly, convey its core values. The title of the book was Genuine Values. I, along with the CEO and a few senior executives, built this idea around the following values: integrity, quality, commitment and innovation. We felt these words best reflected the core values exhibited by its founder and that have successfully guided Deere up to today.

In my new book, Pink Bat: Turning Problems Into Solutions, I share the John Deere story from a different perspective… from its very inception. It’s easy to talk about the after effects… the success story that followed. But when you realize this international corporation started when one young man saw a “problem” as a solution… the story is even more amazing. Read more

My “Radical” Healthcare Solution

January 30, 2010

Okay, but face it, Michael… you’re a radical, Jim said to me the other night at dinner. The first time I recall being called a radical was back in grade school. It was also the first time I had ever heard the word, and I didn’t know what it meant. Based on my teacher’s tone, and the fact that my thinking didn’t align with others, I assumed it meant something bad. Over time I learned its meaning and looking back on that first experience, my teacher’s use of the word was pretty accurate. It seems I was, and according to Jim, still am a radical.

His accusation came during a discussion concerning healthcare. Jim’s position was pretty simple: Government should stay the hell out of healthcare… period. After a few more statements along the same vein, I realized Jim, like many U.S. citizens, had taken the bait. By bait, I mean the propaganda that has become the faulty cornerstone of the so-called “healthcare” debate. What made me a radical in his eyes is that I didn’t accept it. I was interested in discussing “health” care… not “sick” care. Jim wanted to argue about government involvement, insurance companies, hospitals, drug companies and so on… politics.

When you stop listening to rhetoric and start looking at reality (facts and evidence), most “problems” start looking different. Healthcare is no exception. It has little to do with the issues being discussed in Washington or in the media. Read more

Solutions That Stick

January 23, 2010

In 1942 when researchers were searching for a way to make clear plastic gun sights, they formulated a substance called cyanoacrylates. It didn’t work. In fact, they considered it a big problem. Why? It stuck to everything! Based on this, they rejected it.

In 1951 a new team of researchers rediscovered the formula. But this time, rather than reject it, one of the scientists was intrigued with its bonding properties. By viewing it for what it really was (and by contrast, seeing it for what it wasn’t), he set his imagination to work and saw it for what it could be.

His solution? Cyanoacrylates made for an amazing SUPER GLUE! In fact, it could bond almost anything you could imagine. The stickiness problem became the solution… or so it seemed.

Paradoxically, when it was discovered that the formula really did bond nearly anything, including human skin, its strength quickly became its perceived weakness. For the company planning to produce this new product, the potential legal issues and dangers far outweighed the benefits. Once again, cyanoacrylates became a problem.

That is, until the U.S. military heard about it. At the time, doctors in Vietnam were looking for a quick way to suture wounded soldiers. This “problem” substance once again became a great solution and saved many people’s lives in the process. Cyanoacrylates in one form or another are still being used today in medical applications around the world. Read more

Finding Solutions

January 19, 2010

Turning problems into solutions requires that we adjust our perception, suspend our judgments, and remain open-minded to all possibilities. In other words, it means seeing reality for what it “really” is and for what it “really” isn’t.

Since our brain filters through volumes of random data each moment, selecting and rejecting evidence to support our beliefs, we need to consciously define and focus our attention on what it is we are seeking.

Look at the following words and quickly say the actual color aloud (not the word).

If you’re like most people, even this simple challenge requires effort to reprogram your brain. With practice, this task becomes easier once you focus more on the color and less on the actual word.

What we believe and focus on… becomes our reality. If you go out looking for trouble, you’ll find it. If you focus on happiness, it will appear. Once you decide what you’re looking for, your brain will go to work to find it and make it your reality. Whether you’re focused on problems or solutions, it doesn’t matter… your brain will subconsciously gather evidence and make it your reality.

Remember, evidence that could disprove our beliefs is marginalized or blocked by our brain filters, while weaker or even false evidence is distorted or enhanced to support them.

Since labeling something helps make it so, why not start by labeling a “problem” as a “solution”? While this may seem counterintuitive at first, successful people have been seeing problems as solutions since the beginning of time. Read more

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