Steven's Blog

Business person thinking

Conservatism isn’t the Problem

I define conservatism as clinging to traditional practices with opposition to change and innovation out of principle. You fight conservatism in an organization through initiating bold action independently and dealing with the consequences, not by insisting others change first. It is the way a person acts that makes him or her conservative, and not necessarily the way he or she thinks.

Not long ago, a director of marketing at the Japan office of a major European company told me a few bold strategic ideas she has for growing the business, all of which sounded worthy of consideration to me. When I asked her why not propose these, she told me how the organization is far too conservative both in Japan and in the European head office to ever accept, much less consider, her ideas. She insisted that people needed to change their conservative thinking first so she could propose her ideas without resistance. 

Yet, her own tentativeness becomes part of the conservative inertia of the company. For all she knows, there are others in the business with progressive ideas who view her just as conservative as she views others because of the way she acts. She is effectively part of the problem for which she blames others.

The CEO of a different company described his organization as lethargic and conservative in thinking. In reality, it was only lethargic. When I spoke one-on-one with a handful of senior executives and mid-level managers, all were far more bold in their thinking than I had expected. It is just that none were willing to act boldly for change, citing the “conservative thinking” of their colleagues. 

When I suggested to the CEO a few bold ideas for his business in Japan, he too was hesitant to act on them—much less bring them up with executives in the head office even though he liked the ideas. He assured me that the executives in his head office are far too conservative for such ideas. I pointed out that it is unrealistic of him to expect bold behavior from his staff while he himself is tentative with his own superiors. He never invited me back to talk.

Conservatism is always relative. Every organization has its own traditional way of doing things—even the putatively most progressive of them. Click To Tweet At one such world-class company, the CEO of its Japan operation told me how much opposition there is to change in his organization. I almost fell out of my chair, as his business practically sets the global standard of what it means to be an innovative company. 

There is no such thing as a bold idea for change that everyone approves. If you propose an idea for change to which no one voices any particular opposition, it probably isn’t a particularly bold idea that has the potential to transform the business. The best ideas for change, whether strategic or otherwise, polarize people. Some will oppose it viscerally while others nod approvingly crossing their arms smugly saying, “Well it’s about time!” The best ideas have people jumping out of their seats either in favor for or against them.

Your own growth and progress is your own responsibility, not the domain of others. If you find yourself in an organization that stymies your personal growth and the growth of the business, you have three options. You can put up with it. You can work to change it regardless of the personal consequences. And you can leave. There are no other options, and only the latter two are viable. 

So if you decide simply to put up with it, that is your choice, but it is a conservative one you will have made. By doing so, you abdicate your right to complain about the conservatism of others. 

That’s because the conservatism of others is never the problem you have—your own conservatism, however, very well might be. Only you can know for sure.


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