Three Questions to Ask to Avoid the Pitfalls of Institutional Lore

I have a real issue with the very concept of conventional wisdom. Maybe it’s the fact that the very term “everyone knows” is begging the question “Does everyone know? Because I sure as heck don’t.”

This gives rise to the wider issue at hand – the deep-rooted assumptions that pass as common knowledge in organizations. Why is this a problem? For all the mental bandwidth that assumptions and routines save you, they come with a strong opportunity cost for any organization. This institutional knowledge keeps you in an existing tunnel of what you know and, if left unchallenged, results in entrenched thinking. Work becomes a repetitive series of efficient actions that “have always been done this way,” blinding employees from the possible opportunities that are a short cognitive reach away.

So how do we break the cycle of attachment to institutional lore and conventional wisdom? A friend and mentor of mine, celebrated author Howard Bloom, would quote his second rule of science, “Look at things right under your nose as if you’ve never seen them before, then proceed from there.” Approach situations with a childlike curiosity and kick out the assumptions.

A simple three-step approach for questioning conventional wisdom and institutional lore:

Tell me about. . .
This is the broadest way to ask a question and not project an answer on the person who is answering. It allows them to tell you whatever is on their mind about the subject without any direction from the question asker. For example, “Tell me about your usual day. Tell me about how you operate. Tell me about your dream job. Tell me about your management team. Tell me about your current IT system.”  “Tell me . . .” creates a broad light on the subject of your choosing and allows the other person to respond in any direction that they like.  From there, you can move onto more specific inquiries.

Ask what and contemplate the response
Anyone who’s spent time around a toddler has had lots of practice with this line of questioning.  “What is this?” Right behind the simple answer is the next layer.  “What IS this. . . really?” Truly investigate and analyze. Slow down and really explore an idea with an authentic curiosity. Really give an idea or a piece of knowledge a bit more time to learn and understand it.

Ask why do we, or why do we not, or why are we. . .
This question doesn’t get asked enough. Once we build our routines and our common practices and knowledge, we quit questioning them. We should ask “Why do we put a cover sheet on our TPS report?” or “Why do we not have a plan for this?” or “Why are we letting the accounting department control our everyday operations?” Get to the heart of why things are the way they are. Then consider if those reasons justify continuing to operate in the same way. 

These three questions help to shake up the status quo and break routines that introduce bad value into organizations.

Don’t assume you know it all. Don’t assume anyone knows. Stay authentically curious.