On challenging conventional wisdom

Why are people so afraid to challenge conventional wisdom? This question bothers me daily. Mainly because my line of work requires a challenging of basic assumptions on a regular basis, but also because I’m naturally curious and always think “there has to be a better way to do this.” But what bothers me isn’t that people play it safe. That’s at least respectable for reasons people may like to keep to themselves. But what bothers me is when people think its a risk not taking. Challenging conventional wisdom is one of the most risk-averse things one can do.

Think about it. Bringing new ideas to old questions leads to two outcomes – both favorable. If the hypothesis and new ideas don’t work, then the conventional wisdom has proven to hold up under new circumstances. One can confidently carry on with the thinking with renewed confidence in its relevance in a changing environment. If conventional thinking is proven to be wrong, then the new information holds tremendous potential in the form of incremental gains and advances in how the problem can be solved. This new payoff will likely be greater than that provided by the conventional thinking and is incrementally more positive than the previous assumptions.

The only thing preventing you from challenging conventional wisdom is your unwillingness to move forward. Even if time and resources limit the amount of testing and challenging you can do – the potential payoff in terms of getting more out of those limited resources should push you to at least give it a try.