Article originally published in the American City Business Journals on November 14, 2017
The Free Dictionary defines “paradigm” as “a set of assumptions, concepts, values and practices that constitutes a way of viewing reality.” People who hold onto paradigms are apt to say, “We have always done it that way.” Former Australian Executive Woman of the Year Catherine DeVrye has called these “The seven most expensive words in business.”
Challenging paradigms is imperative to advancing your business and creating competitive advantage.
In August 2014, I wrote an article headlined “Breaking paradigms to achieve breakthrough results,” in which I described how my company innovatively broke process design and operational paradigms to push our technology forward. This effort allowed us to economically justify a new manufacturing plant to provide a product to the pulp and paper industry in Alberta, Canada.
The plant delivered the highest return of any of my company’s manufacturing investments and became the model for future plants of this type. It also gave my company a competitive advantage in the marketplace. The innovative chemical process and operational design was catalyzed by the need to raise the economic return above what was needed for the board to approve the project. Sometimes it takes such a situation to move technology forward.
Early in my career, I was the business manager for a granular product that was used in the formulation of high-temperature acid resistant cement sold into the refractory industry. One of the product’s specifications was particle size range, which had not been changed for as long as anyone could remember.
One of our engineers suggested that we evaluate increasing the product’s particle size range, which would increase the output of the plant and hence its capacity, allowing us to meet growing demand. Our technical service people argued that particle size was sacrosanct to the performance of our product and resisted any change. Needing more capacity, we increased the particle size range and asked our customers to evaluate the modified product’s performance.
Most customers found that there was no change in product performance, and in a few cases, the wider size distribution product had superior performance. By challenging a paradigm, we were able to meet growing demand and delay the capital expenditure for a plant expansion.
A technology-intensive, relatively new global business unit had been operating at a significant loss when I became CEO of my company. Due to years of losses, a paradigm developed that we could not compete in the marketplace against the entrenched industry leader. Board members and many of my direct reports were nearly unanimous that we should throw in the towel and sell the business unit, thinking we would never achieve the returns originally anticipated.
I believed our technology had advanced to the point where it was at least as good as the industry leader. We were building market credibility and slowly gaining share. However, the business unit was not executing as well as it should.
I resisted the temptation to sell the business unit but instead replaced the general manager with a highly skilled and experienced leader from within the industry who I thought could turn the business unit around.
Within two years, the business unit became profitable. It continued to thrive and is now a major contributor to the company’s profitability. Had I bought into the paradigm of my colleagues and sold the business unit, significant shareholder value would have been forgone.
As leaders of our organizations, how many times do we hear from our employees that something can’t be done? In December 2015, I wrote an article titled “Don’t tell me it can’t be done. Find a way,” in which I describe how Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle broke the paradigm that Tokyo was too far away to bomb during World War II.
In April 1942, Doolittle broke that paradigm by leading a bombing raid on Tokyo with 16 B-25s launched from the aircraft carrier Hornet, the first time bombers had been launched from a carrier. The raid resulted a significant boost to American morale early in World War II.
So, what have I learned about paradigms? Don’t wait for an adverse condition or event to catalyze the process of change. Every company needs a culture of continuous improvement that drives the organization and in which paradigms should constantly be challenged.
Challenges and impediments are good for your business. They require your team to step up and achieve results beyond expectations.
When my company adopted a culture of continuous improvement where all employees were empowered to challenge paradigms within their area of responsibility and implement change, we saw significant bottom-line improvement. This helped build our competitive advantage.
So, the next time one of your employees says something can’t be done, respond by saying, “Find a way to do it.” My experience is that you may not be able to achieve 100 percent of the objective, but you likely will find a way to achieve most of it. This is how businesses advance.
Stan Silverman is founder and CEO of Silverman Leadership. He is a speaker, advisor and nationally syndicated writer on leadership, entrepreneurship and corporate governance. Silverman earned a Bachelor of Science degree in chemical engineering and an MBA degree from Drexel University. He is also an alumnus of the Advanced Management Program at the Harvard Business School. He can be reached at Stan@SilvermanLeadership.com.