five women dressed in identical outfits. one stands in foreground, looking over her shoulder at the others
PHOTO: 浮萍 闪电

At a time of overwhelming data saturation, business leaders are looking for standard operating procedures to simplify work. 

There’s a psychological component to this: The more stimulus a human is given, the more they look to simplify that information. Codifying data in this way helps us make sense of the world, but it also underpins bias and can lead to stereotypes with severe consequences.  

This process is starting earlier and earlier. Even in schools, students are being assigned increasingly demanding cognitive loads. Faced with too much work and too little time, children are taught to use Google instead of learning critical thinking skills to parse through conflicting data. It’s a risky precedent to set for the next generation of professional minds. 

Today, this worrisome combination of data overload, evolutionary predisposition and lack of critical thinking development is inspiring business leaders to naively follow industry trends in an effort to appear to be on the cutting edge.

If you recognize yourself among this group, don’t panic. Once you understand how your organization arrived at this point, you can begin identifying the steps to change course and resume critical thinking.

The Rise — and Traps — of Workplace Trend Clickbait

When a team at Microsoft boasted a 40% productivity boost after implementing a four-day workweek, the announcement dominated the news cycle. That’s not an anomaly. Trends around everything from development practices to HR approaches show up as frequent, clickbait-y headlines. Zapier’s workforce is now entirely remote, Spotify cut build times for artists in half and Basecamp insists, “It Doesn’t Have to Be Crazy at Work.”

It’s tempting to read these posts and get excited that someone else has already solved one of your internal pain points. Why should your company do the heavy lifting on the problem when another company has already served as the guinea pig and produced an effective solution? 

Unfortunately, these trend-based articles and blogs are almost never accompanied by details about why a change worked for a particular company — and why it might not be universally replicable. One crucial component differentiates successful and failed adoption that business leaders tend to neglect: critical thinking.

Related Article: Asking and Doing: The Only Skills That Matter Anymore

One Size Doesn’t Fit All With Business Solutions

It makes sense that businesses would want to follow in the footsteps of creative geniuses. But when companies come up with creative solutions, they’re thinking contextually about their own set of problems. That’s why simply adopting a trend without examining the nuances behind its success won’t yield the same results.

For example, when Microsoft tested its four-day work week in the fall of 2019, business leaders questioned whether a similar solution would be effective at their own companies. But Microsoft hasn’t found a universal way to increase productivity — it merely identified a successful solution for a small, one-team subset of employees.

Now that you understand how to avoid jumping on the trend bandwagon, how can your business instead apply a fresh mindset to create solutions of its own?

Related Article: Do Senior Leaders Really Stand in the Way of Digital Disruption

Engage in Critical Thinking While Experimenting With Trends

Avoiding trend bandwagons doesn’t mean reinventing the wheel: one or two components of a strategy may match your company’s needs. But instead of duplicating Microsoft’s work week, for example, organizations are better off emulating the company’s experimental mindset to find a personalized way to boost their own productivity. 

I see three phases of critical thinking to getting trend adoption right. For example, say you see something interesting about Spotify’s methodology of developing original code. 

  • Phase one: Ask questions. If your company is at a natural inflection point where transformative tech and innovation may fit naturally, ask yourself how Spotify’s solution may suit your own needs. 
    • What’s the cost of getting this change wrong versus the benefit of getting it right? 
    • What are the characteristics of Spotify? Do they match my own? (Think company size, funding source, etc)
    • Why did this work at Spotify?
    • Why might it work here?
    • How might I test this solution’s effectiveness?
  • Phase two: Take it to the team. If you see one or two interesting concepts you’d like to try — and think Spotify’s challenges and characteristics mirror your own — it’s time to gather input from your team members. Talk to product managers, the C-suite or frontline employees — or better yet, all of the above — to further mold your solution. 
  • Phase three: Test the solution. Trying out a new tool shouldn’t mean entirely restructuring your organization. Identify ways to roll out a change on a small scale, whether it’s logging interactions for a month or trying a schedule change with just one team. Take benchmarks at the beginning and determine a method to test and measure improvements. Finally, set a plan determining the time and resources to commit to disruptive solutions.

Company leadership has an obligation to soak up information about what’s happening in their specific field, presenting potential solutions and looking for an opportunity to test them out. I’m constantly adding to my own file of novel experiments I’d like to try at Nintex. 

But I’m also cautious of anything deemed “trendy.” I immediately add a mental “Mileage May Vary” disclaimer about its potential for success at my firm, and hope others do the same for their own organizations. I also want to see more follow-ups with these pioneers of change to assess their continued success after two or three years. Chances are, it’s not as big as we think.