People sometimes confuse prejudice and preconception. Both are assumptions you have without having actual experience or evidence that can tell you whether it is true and not. Because prejudice is a negative preconception, there is pressure to leave your prejudices behind because that is “the right thing to do”. However, that’s entirely the wrong thing to do! Both prejudice and preconceptions are useful generalisations that humans use to make better decisions in the absence of facts. If you are in a rough part of the town and you see someone who looks like a criminal and you believe he is, that is prejudice. He is most likely not a criminal and may even be a social worker who fits perfectly in. However, the rational decision is to cross the street to avoid passing him as this will allow you to avoid risk.
However, when we do get facts that tell us that our prejudice or preconception is wrong, we need to adjust our assumptions. This is where prejudice and preconceptions tend to differ. Prejudice has a tendency to influence our decisions and assumptions even in the presence of facts. This is also true when it comes to gender where we seem not to dare to acknowledge that hundreds of years of systematic differences have made it right to assume, in the absence of facts, that a woman you don’t know have a higher probability of being behind a man of similar age and background in salary, position, or some other characteristics. Not fair, but statistically true (in some countries more than others). However, it is your prejudice that will prevent you from not seeing the actual facts about this particular woman. In my last post, I wrote about how this urge to claim that women in general are as capable of men interacts with our definition of leadership because men have defined what leadership is and where I argue that we need to revisit the definition of leadership.
Also when starting a company or working on an important project, preconceptions often behave like prejudice, they are hard to get rid of even when faced with hard facts. But we also know that a strong conviction is necessary when innovating. You will be told over and over that “it will not work”, and you need to believe in something many others doom to fail. How do you stay the course while adjusting your preconceptions based on facts?
The answer lies in understanding what your foundational beliefs are and what your preconceptions are. Webvan is a famous dot com failure in the online grocery delivery market that illustrates this nicely. The foundational belief in 1996 was that an online shop and delivery of groceries to people’s home has a big potential and can be done with profits. The Webvan preconception was that they needed to basically replicate the in-shop experience and that first-mover advantage, own warehouses, advanced logistics, and a big selection were key success criteria. They forgot to test these preconceptions, and they continued doing the same thing even when faced with hard facts and finally went bankrupt in 2001.
20 years later, there are several quite successful grocery home delivery companies. In Norway, there is one that sees tremendous success, kolonial.no. The foundational belief is the same, but instead of focusing on groceries, this new breed of companies have understood that they are not selling groceries, they are selling time and convenience for busy people. The result is that they look for improvements and opportunities in totally different areas. Webvan might have been able to get to this conclusion, if they had been open about the possibility that their preconceptions were wrong and actually systematically validated their preconceptions.
I have earlier written about a similar concept that I call “pivotal assumptions” and how these can help you get increased velocity in your organisation by systematically identifying them and use them to focus your efforts without being too influenced by uncertainty.
So, stick with your foundational beliefs, but plan for uncertainty and always look out for facts that can falsify your preconceptions!