Breaking The Rules

Have you wondered how the track-size or gauge of modern trains came about? If you question it far back enough, you will find that British engineers settled on a particular size because the tools to make carriages for that size were easily available. The tools were common as they had been designed to make carriage axles that could fit the ruts in British roads and had therefore, become a standard. The ruts in the British roads were made by Roman chariots that were built for 2 horses, almost 2,000 years ago. It is almost embarrassing to realise that the modern railroad gauge is made for the dimensions of horse-driven carriages and has remained unchanged for 2 millennia.

Just like the QWERTY keyboard in use by every computer today. The original inventor of the typewriter had to, on purpose, slow down fast-fingered typists as quick typing jammed up the mechanical keys. The most obvious solution was to jumble up the alphabets so that people would find it harder to type fast. Isn’t it silly that today, almost 140 years later, we are still using the same QWERTY keyboard and trying desperately to teach users (especially 2fingered typists) to type faster?

Why do we still design planes with wings when we know that planes do not need wings to fly? Why do we design cars with wheels that can only move forwards and backwards but expect drivers to be able to ‘side-park’? In most of the developing world, motorcycles are the only means of affordable transport. Why then are we still designing motorcycles for 2 people when we know that entire families should be accommodated?

We seem to be operating on certain assumptions and beliefs that we have taken on as rules or ‘truths’ that cannot, or should not, be challenged.

Assumptions and rules become engrained in our belief system and masquerade as truths -which they rarely are. We must be able to separate these assumptions and rules from facts, by questioning each and every one that we have blindly taken as the truth. Einstein had to do exactly that to come up with the theory of relativity.

Everyone had assumed that time was absolute and no other scientist had even dreamed of violating this assumption. When questioned and examined critically, this ‘rule’ broke down to reveal the true nature of time. For centuries, man had been trying to create flying machines. Every inventor at that time was relying on the same tables of aeronautical data that had been compiled by an earlier pioneer in the field. The Wright brothers however, did not accept this data at face value and questioned its validity. They discovered that the data was based on assumptions, not facts. The rest is history.

There are many reasons why we should challenge rules and assumptions. The first is that they may have been correct at the time they were framed but may no longer apply today. The ancient Romans believed that man could not run one mile in less than 4 minutes. To prove it, they used to set lions on Christian prisoners to see if it could be done. None of the prisoners lived to tell the tale, thereby further confirming the ‘rule’. Roger Bannister, who was not aware of this ‘rule’, set out to run a mile in less than one minute and did so effortlessly.

The strange thing is that after Bannister broke the ‘rule’, dozens of others achieved the same result within weeks. A mistaken assumption had become a rule, holding back progress. The second reason is that an assumption or rule could be based on tradition and culture, what is ridiculous in one part of the world is considered a fundamental truth in another. A certain tribe in Africa finds facial scars and a bald head very attractive. If a young girl does not deliberately scar her face and shave her head bald, she will have a hard time finding a suitor. Some cultures find slim women highly unattractive, the bigger the woman, the more desirable it becomes. Assumptions may be local or regional, not universal.

The third reason is the famous herd mentality, it is easy to belief an erroneous idea if everyone else believes it too. Despite generations of historical experience to the contrary, we find it impossible to belief that the whole world can be wrong, even though it repeatedly is. At one point in time, the whole world believed that the earth was flat. Later, it was universally accepted that our sun and the planets in the solar system revolved around the earth. However, the motions of the planets did not fit the rule.

Astronomers therefore, created amazingly complicated rules to fit the assumption that the earth was the centre of the solar system. Nicolas Copernicus questioned this assumption and quickly found that it was mistaken rule which had been accepted as the truth. Fortunately, Copernicus died before his findings were published. Galileo Galelie too reached the same conclusion when he critically examined the incorrect assumption. Unfortunately for Galelie however, the herd mentality at that time was so pervasive that he was tortured and imprisoned for the rest of his life. The only crime this brilliant Italian scientist, writer, inventor and professor of mathematics had committed was that he dared question an accepted rule. Thankfully, times have changed.

What assumptions have you made about your customers, market, competitors and products? How true are these assumptions, have you tested them recently? Innovators must break free of the shackles that hold back creative ideas. Rules and assumptions are prisons that keep us locked in on mistaken or downright false beliefs. Innovators have to examine all sacred cows, the more sacred the cow is, the greater the chance that it is either false or no longer applicable. This however, requires courage to question our deepest beliefs and convictions. If we are not even aware that we are prisoners of our own doing, how can we escape?

Source: Dr. Kamal Jit Singh is the regional director of British Telecom’s Asian Research Centre and specialises in using innovation as a strategy for increasing competitiveness. He also teaches strategic management to an MBA class in Singapore. Comments: singhk@pd.jaring.my