My Problem with Conventional Wisdom

More and more I have realized over the last few years that I have a really big problem with many positions that are considered “conventional wisdom” or best-practice. And this goes for a wide variety of topics: software development (which I consider my main competency), technology as a whole, management, career planning, strategy, etc.

In the areas where I have developed a high level of expertise it has been clear for the longest time, because there I could easily see what conventional wisdom usually is: An oversimplified version of the true matter, that anybody can talk about assertively after having spent one or two hours with it. It is a bit like at university when after a 90 minute lecture some people really think they now understand what normalization in the context of the relational data model means.

But in reality the conventional wisdom is usually the lowest common denominator, and that only for a specific context. If you understand this and take it as a starting point for a real discussion, that is fine. But never fool yourself and think you have understood the topic. Unfortunately, this is a somewhat unpopular position and many people are offended by the mere suggestion that something is more complex than they thought so far.

What makes this a problem is when you combine it with another conventional wisdom: “Any decision is better than no decision.” Really? I think it is downright stupid. Of course, one should avoid what is called analysis paralysis and define a threshold for when a decision needs to be made. But all too often it is just an excuse to make a decision without having the slightest clue what its consequences are. Or to quote Herodotus (484-452 BC): “Quidquid agis prudenter agas et respice finem” – whatever you do, do it wisely and consider the end.

Back to the actual topic: Assuming that conventional wisdom comes into being roughly the same way for all subjects, this also means that you should stop accepting it for things you don’t know much about. Think of it as a news clip-version of something really complex. It is probably not completely wrong, but certainly an extremely limited version of the true matter. If you want to understand things, you need to dig deeper.

When looking at this from a strategic point of view, conventional wisdom in many cases means the same as commodity. If you are a product company (and that includes software) going for what everybody else does, will not help. Rather, you should spend some time thinking what you want to do really well. Believe me, it is not convincing when you interview four vendors and they all tell you more or less the same. All you know after such talks is that none of them really has a grasp of the business they are in.

Conventional wisdom will allow you to play it safe in terms of office politics, but not in terms of market success. Is that what you want?

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