Ricardo Semler – Maverick or Lateral Thinker?

By Nicola Tyler | 31 July 2013

“If we have a cardinal strategy that forms the bedrock of all these challenges, it’s “Ask Why?”.    Ask it all the time, and always ask it three times in a row.  This doesn’t come naturally.  People are conditioned to recoil from questioning too much.  First, it’s rude and dangerous.  Second, it may imply we are ignorant or uninformed.  Third, it means everything we think we know may not be correct or true.  Fourth, management is usually frightened by the prospect of employees who question continually.  But, mostly, it means putting aside all the rote or pat answers that have resulted from what I call ‘crystallized’ thinking, the state of mind where ideas have so hardened into inflexible and unquestioned concepts that they are no longer of any use.  Employees must be free to question, to analyze, to investigate, and a company must be flexible enough to listen to the answers.  Those habits are key to longevity, growth and profit. 

We don’t know if Semler ever attended a lateral thinking seminar, but what we do know is that Edward de Bono introduced us to a deliberate lateral thinking tool called Challenge.  A tool that asks the question “why?” – three times!  The challenge tool is brilliant for questioning businesses’ processes and systems, but can be applied to any traditional thinking.

Challenge is designed to question the status quo in a deliberate way but without attacking it.  The technique is simple to learn, yet despite its simplicity, we still tend to give up before the end.  In the de Bono approach, we would list our traditional thinking about a situation, what he terms a “Checklist of Current Thinking”.  Once you have that, you then ask Why in the same style that Semler does, but in a slightly more deliberate manner.

The first approach is to ask Why C?  The C stands for Cut.  Here we are questioning the necessity of something – do we really need it or could this be “cut” out so to speak.  If you consider a chair, you might challenge the legs of the chair.  Can we “cut” the legs?  In my work, I generally find that there are few things people are comfortable cutting:  often the Why C naturally leads the thinker to the next Why in the process.

Why B?  The B stands for Because and is intended to highlight the reasons why something is done in a particular way.  We do this ‘because…’.  Considering the chair example, chairs have legs because they provide support for the seat:  it’s a way of keeping the seat off the ground and creating height for comfort and style.    In the Challenge process, de Bono also encourages us to question the validity of these reasons.  Is style a valid reason?  Perhaps not.  Is a way of creating a height a valid reason?  Yes it is.  If it weren’t for the legs, the chair would be called a cushion.  It would just be a seat on the floor, and if it was a moulded seat, might even be more uncomfortable.

Which bring us to the last Why – Why A?  Here the A stands for Alternatives, and de Bono asks us to question is there another way – is there an alternative to legs, or could we seek to satisfy the reason in a new, different or better way.  The deliberate search for an alternative requires a positive mental attitude, (the basic belief that there may be a better way), as well as deliberate effort.  All too often we don’t even consider alternatives, for the same reasons that Semler states – you may be proven wrong, or perhaps even right.

João Vendramin, our 60-year old director emeritus, once asked a worker if he’d ever considered a different approach to his job.   ‘He answered that his boss told him to do it that way,’ Vendramin remembers.  ‘So I insisted.  He told me that once he had done this job differently, but his boss reprimanded him.  While trying to explain to his boss what happened he said, “I was thinking that….” To which his boss instantly replied, “Thinking?  You are not supposed to think.  I am the one who thinks here.”’

Source: The Seven-Day Weekend by Ricardo Semler

Want to know more?  Ricardo Semler, Author of The Seven-Day Weekend and Maverick and CEO of Semco, one of Brazil’s top performing, privately owned companies, will be sharing his innovative thinking.  Visit www.theprogressconference.com for more information or call Ingrid on 011 463 9898.