Backup Conventional Wisdom

How wise is conventional wisdom? Back in 1883 the tremendously influential scientific philosopher Thomas Henry Huxley explained to an International Fisheries Exhibition in London why the world should never worry about overfishing. “Any tendency to overfishing will meet with its natural check in the diminution of the supply… this check will always come into operation long before anything like permanent exhaustion has occurred,” he said. Huxley’s influence lasted for the next 100 years and was reflected in Canadian government policies which helped enormously in stripping the north Atlantic of its cod fisheries to the extent they may never recover.
Huxley, according to Mark Kurlansky’s book Cod, had been appointed to three British fishing commissions set up to concider fishermen’s demands for legislation restricting fishing practices which, they said, were depleting the surrounding ocean’s fish stocks. He dismissed the complaints as unscientific and prejudicial to “productive modes of industry” and said that “fishermen, as class, are exceedingly unobservant of anything about fish… “.
As Kurlansky says: “Considering the international impact of Huxley’s work in the three commissions, it is disturbing to note that he once explained his participation in these paid appointments by saying, ‘a man with half dozen children always wants all the money he can lay his hands on’.” Without going too deeply into all the lessons that could be drawn from this little episode in history, one stands out. Huxley’s expressed view that nature will carry on regardless of human market driven interventions became conventional wisdom that might yet serve the world very badly. Overfishing of cod and other large fish species is major ecological problem, the repercussions of which look scary.
There are some other conventional wisdoms floating about which, in terms of global impact, might eventually compare in scope and scale with Thomas Huxley’s. How confident are you, for instance, about the conventional wisdom that global trade is unconditionally in the best interests of every nation? There is little of the Thomas Huxley about those who confidently promote this approach as the only answer to the wealth of nations. Globalisation disenfranchises many, generally poorer, nations. Global trade and funding decisions are made by too few individuals and institutions, and are invariably linked to powerful financial and commercial interests. Globalisation, just like New Zealand’s fisheries management which, some say, leads the world in its potential to sustain fish stocks, could be far better managed.
And is the treadmill of growth the only economic ride in town? Conventional wisdom states that growth should be the central focus of all national endeavour and as such, is the only meaningful measure of economic and human progress. Almost everyone believes in growth but it doesn’t always deliver poverty-reducing or life-enhancing solutions. It is difficult to argue convincing case against growth. Statistics show general correlation between growth and poverty reduction. But not in all cases. Trickle-down strategies for instance, simply don’t work. The issue is not whether to favour growth or not. Rather, growth strategies should be considered in the context of what kind of growth and at what price and for what benefits. Serious consideration and debate could throw up some valuable, if unconventional, wisdom.
Conventional wisdom also attaches to governance and management. And when it comes to best practice governance, conventional wisdom opts for rules and regulations to bring about exemplary leadership and performance. But, as Jeffrey Sonnenfeld of the America’s Yale School of Management points out, good and bad companies alike have already adopted most of the practices spelled out in new rules, codes and regulatory procedures. Organisations which have complied with the rules fail while others succeed despite avoiding practices based on the conventional wisdom. “The most involved, diligent, value-adding boards may or may not follow every recommendation in the good-governance handbook. What distinguishes exemplary boards is that they are robust, effective social systems,” he says.
Sonnenfeld advocates virtuous circle of respect, trust and candour. The most successful boards and senior management teams “get into virtuous cycle in which one good quality builds on another. Team members develop mutual respect; because they respect one another, they develop trust; because they trust one another, they share mutual information, because they all have the same, reasonably complete information, they can challenge one another’s conclusions coherently; because spirited give-and-take becomes the norm, they learn to adjust their own interpretations in response to intelligent questions.” That’s not conventional wisdom, but it should be. M

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