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Why do you do that thing you do?

Jun 30, 2013 Success, Sunday Nation

When I arrived as a fresh-faced student in London many years ago, I discovered a strange phenomenon. There were two types of newspaper in Britain: very large, very serious ones like the Times, Telegraph and Guardian; and much smaller, utterly vapid, even idiotic ones like the Sun and Mirror.

Reading the two types was like visiting two different countries. The large papers, called broadsheets, were full of dry, analytical, sober reporting and analysis; the little ones, called tabloids, reflected a nation obsessed with celebrity worship, topless women and knee-jerk sensationalism.

Being a serious young man, I confined myself to the broadsheets. But this presented a complication: they were so large that they were almost impossible to read comfortably. On every tube train journey, I would look on in envy at the people who flipped through their facile tabloids with ease, while I had to master the art of folding and refolding my unwieldy broadsheet while standing in a fast-moving train.

It was ridiculous, yet the serious papers would not reduce their dimensions. They were convinced that size was an important differentiator in the customer’s mind: it signaled quality rather than tittle-tattle. And so we serious folk suffered in silence, consoling ourselves that we were at least reading wholesome stuff.

In 2004, long after I had come back home to Kenya, the Independent broke rank. It went to tabloid size. Its competitors looked on smugly, expecting the worst. And then…nothing. No collapse in circulation, no mass migration of loyal readers. In fact, circulation increased as readers of other broadsheets gratefully chose the Independent. Many competitors now followed suit.

Why did the newspapers persist with an outdated, silly format? Because broadsheet size had become a best practice. Few things are more dangerous in an industry, as Professor Freek Vermuelen of London Business School pointed out in the Harvard Business Review recently. He also provided an interesting titbit. Why were British newspapers such a large size? Because “in 1712, the English government started taxing newspapers based on the number of pages that they printed. In response, companies made their newspapers big, so that they could print them on fewer pages. Although this tax was abolished in 1855, companies everywhere continued to print on the impractical large sheets of paper. They had grown so accustomed to the size of their product that they thought it could not be done any other way.”

Read that and weep. After you’ve stopped, ask yourself how many “best practices” your business is the victim of. What things are you doing simply because everyone in your industry does them?

I could point out a few right here in Kenya. How many banks, supermarkets and airlines believe long queues are inevitable, and multiple counters (mostly unmanned) are the best way to deal with them? How many building contractors believe cutting corners on materials and supervision is shrewd practice, done by everyone? How many ISPs believe exaggerating the internet speeds being sold is not only acceptable, but clever?

Please note: focusing on the wrong strategic variable caused most newspaper managers to miss the fact that a paper-based newspaper was itself soon going to become less relevant.

The truth is, the only best practice is the one that makes life better for the customer. That is the practice we should all be looking for; the one that will yield a lasting return. The lazy way is to study all your competitors and fall into rigid patterns with hazy justification.

What the wiser players do is study all the ways in which customers are served badly by the entire industry, and then be the first to make a dramatic change that offers better utility and experience. Business today rewards neither mimicry nor conformity; it needs trailblazers who are not tied to the past.

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