Another Pitfall Akin to Confirmation Bias

Thinking outside-of-the box?

Our previous post shared some thoughts on the pitfall of “confirmation bias,” which is the tendency to pursue and embrace information that matches our existing beliefs.

A somewhat related concept that can, surprisingly, be equally as dangerous is “conventional wisdom,” which has been defined as “the body of ideas or explanations generally accepted as true by the public or by experts in a field.” It is frequently referenced as “inside-the-box” thinking, as opposed to taking an approach that challenges convention (i.e., “outside-the-box” thinking).

But contrary to popular belief (or, to ‘conventional wisdom’ – ha ha!), this seemingly safe practice can be both an asset and a liability!

On the plus-side, conventional wisdom speeds up consensus and increases our confidence in our decision making, leaving us to focus our attention on challenges for which there is no conventional wisdom to guide us. And conventional wisdom has much truth within it — having been developed over decades of observations.

For example, conventional wisdom holds that specialization is good. A person can get very fast and reliable doing the same thing the same way again and again, a-la Henry Ford’s production line.

However, while specialization can increase both efficiency and quality when demand is consistent at optimum levels, it can quickly become counterproductive, costly, and even wasteful if the demand for work is uncertain.

For example, a commercial bakery could purchase one large capacity mixer that could produce 100,000 loaves for far less cost per loaf than two smaller mixers. The large mixer produces large batch sizes; that’s how it gets its great efficiencies. But if the market is looking for variety, none of which is ordered in bulk, the large mixer results in the worst of both worlds: you either produce large batch sizes and have a lot of scrap if the demand does not materialize in time, or you waste the purchased capacity by preparing batch sizes more closely tied to current demand for the product variety. Either way, you can never really produce enough variety for the market, because the equipment produces only one variety at a time.

So like many things in life, when we find ourselves needing to research the marketplace, assess root causes, or study work processes, we must beware of both confirmation bias and its kin conventional wisdom, lest we make sub-optimum (or worse!) choices that feel good at the start but come back to bite us in the end.