Take a risk by challenging 'conventional wisdom'

Conventional wisdom…is the safest route, the path of least resistance, but it isn’t a path to greater success. It is just an avoidance of possible failure.


Thanksgiving is fellowship, and a pause in our year to reflect on the bounty of our blessings. Thanksgiving is a repast complete with turkey and stuffing and cranberries and leftover turkey, which is used to make MY favorite holiday treat, a cold turkey sandwich the next day. And Thanksgiving is football, wherein I eat my cold turkey sandwich while planted in front of the TV watching the endless parade of football instead of standing in line for the Thanksgiving weekend store bargains.

And this particular Thanksgiving football weekend, there were three especially notable football events, each remarkable in their own way:

  • Michigan losing 42-41 to Ohio State when the Wolverines decide to go for a two-point conversion with 31 seconds to play and fail to convert.
  • Alabama losing to Auburn 34-28 when Alabama tries a game-winning 57-yard field goal. The kick came up short, and Auburn’s Chris Davis returned the kick 109 yards out of the end zone for a touchdown as time expired.
  • The Chicago Bears losing 23-20 to Minnesota in overtime after kicker Robbie Gould missed what would have been a record-shattering 66-yard field goal as time expired in regulation, and then missed a 47-yard kick in overtime because his coach decided against trying to get closer for a shorter kick.

The winners here each get a tally mark under the ‘Win’ column, but I’d rather focus on the losers here. Each of them tried something remarkable and failed, and that failure cost them the victory. The question, however, is whether there is more to be celebrated by the attempt than by the outcome.

It is clear that we are an outcome-based society. We keep score of everything, and our psyche is buoyed or crushed by the outcome. From weekend box office results to the sales figures from Black Friday (another Thanksgiving tradition) to the monthly ISM manufacturing numbers, we just can’t help but rank ourselves based on the numbers game. Yet sometimes it is trial and error that we find the way to greater success.

We have common practices in our manufacturing plants. We have tried-and-true methods of operating our facilities. In an effort not to disrupt what already seems to be working just fine, we don’t try to get better.

This is called “conventional wisdom.” It is the safest route, the path of least resistance. It is vanilla. There is nothing wrong with any of that, except that it isn’t a path to greater success. It is just an avoidance of possible failure.

So do we risk failure or avoid greater success? Let’s look at the results:

  • Michigan lost a chance to beat Ohio State—its greatest rival—and ruin the Buckeyes’ hopes for a national championship.
  • Alabama certainly lost its chance for a national championship.
  • The Bears almost certainly cost itself a chance at the NFC playoffs.

It doesn’t sound like a ringing endorsement for challenging conventional wisdom. But the problem wasn’t in the attempt. The failure was in the execution.

So what we can learn most from our weekend of football? It’s that challenging conventional wisdom takes two parts: the attempt and the execution. We often stop ourselves at the attempt. We aren’t willing to change the way we do things because we’re afraid to fail, and in a world that prizes victory above almost all else, failure is not an acceptable outcome.

I would argue a more dangerous trend is to fail to try. In trying there will be failure, but there also can be greater success than anyone might expect. In order to succeed, though, it’s not just about the attempt, but also the execution. If you can prepare yourself and your team for both, you tip the scales away for a 50-50 proposition and in your favor.

We are at the point in our manufacturing resurgence that we need to get better at what we do. This will require changing things that have helped the resurgence in the first place. And change is hard.

Our annual Top Plant issue shows that excellence is not about being content with yesterday or today, but having a clear vision on what is possible tomorrow. It is important to take risks to get better, and it is important to have a plan to mitigate those risks with extraordinary execution.

Regardless of the outcome of any single event, I believe that taking calculated risks gets you further in the long run than just by standing pat.

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