Compliance, conformity and convergent thinking

Cambridge’s identity is bound up with breaking new ground; thinking in new ways; making unexpected leaps of insight. That is part of what drew me to Cambridge Judge Business School to undertake the EMBA. Recently, I’ve been thinking about what this means in relation to my experience of business education in particular, and to the business and wider world in general. It’s partly been sparked by Christmas jumpers and ballgowns.

EMBA Xmas Dinner at Peterhouse College

EMBA Xmas Dinner at Peterhouse College

The class of 2013 (some of whom I have met, all of whom are brilliant) and the class of 2014 (my lot) enjoyed a collective Christmas dinner at Peterhouse before Christmas. The discussion regarding dress code for the event was very interesting to observe. Sadly, I couldn’t make the event, but those who could expressed a variety of preferences, from black tie to the gaudiest Christmas jumpers people could find. The choice was to go for black tie, but with an option for full-on Santa fancy dress – see the picture above. As you’ll see, 99% of attendees went for the former option. Some members of the 2014 class were happy to go along with the black tie idea, but there is a group on the course who are keen to ditch the formality where possible.

To declare an interest, I absolutely fall into the latter group. As I work in the music industry I guess you would expect that – I haven’t worn a suit or tie to work at any time in the last five years. However, I think that this whole idea of formality, of rules, of expectations that must be met is highly corrosive to doing worthwhile work in any industry, and to living a fulfilling life in general.

In our learning environment at Cambridge, deference to ‘received wisdom’ or accepted theories is a waste of our wonderful opportunity to think things through for ourselves. As aspiring business leaders, it is up to us to make our own leaps of reason. It is not necessarily the case that others know better, although surveying generally accepted theories is a great starting point for thinking about finance and managerial decision-making, as we have been doing, or organisational behaviour and operations management as we are about to this term.

In business itself, I am very much in agreement with the characterisation of firms set out in the fantastic Uncommon Sense, Common Nonsense by Jules Goddard and Tony Eccles (Profile Books, 2012). In this brilliant book, one of the authors’ key messages is that “Firms outperform their competitors by aiming to be different, not better”. This could be in the realm of providing unique products or services, or by coming up with innovative processes by which products or services are provided.

In my view, in business contexts, compliance and conformity should only be enforced or encouraged for reasons of legality. All other bets should be off. Collective endeavours will spontaneously evolve based on Darwinian processes (such as industry or technical standards), and these should always be open to disruption if a better collective endeavour arises rather than becoming zombies kept alive beyond their point of natural death or decline by those with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. This last point is tough to put into practice. It should also be the process of the evolution of law, by the way, but necessarily the law will tend to move slower than the rest of society in adapting to change.

If we achieve this openness to challenge and change, we are more likely to have to question ourselves more deeply – perhaps using the Five Whys method, or my favourite direct question “What is it for?” in our daily work. If the answer is “because that’s how we do it” or even worse “that’s how we’ve always done it”, then we aren’t thinking hard enough.

If we’re not able to free ourselves from the constraints of compliance and conforming to expectations in the safety of our EMBA classroom (or Christmas dinner), we surely won’t be able to do so in the outside world.

Convergent, closed thinking leads to convergent results. Divergent, open thinking at least gives us the chance to hit on something remarkable. Most importantly it gives us the space to explore, discover and to become ourselves.

Written while listening to ‘Open Up Your Door’ by Richard Hawley (Parlophone) and ‘Lotus Flower – SBTRKT Remix’ by Radiohead (Ticker Tape)  .

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