A NEW LOOK AT NEWSPAPERS
Freek Vermeulen, associate professor at the London Business School, tells the story of some consulting work he did for The Guardian, one of Britain’s oldest newspapers. At the time, he assumed that the publishers printed the news on large sheets of paper to save costs. But he was surprised to discover that in fact the opposite is true – it’s slightly more expensive to print on large broadsheets than on the smaller tabloid format. He questioned the executives about this, and was met with the rather glib “because that’s the way we’ve always done it”. In other words, quality newspapers have always been broadsheet, and so there was no reason to change. “And anyway,” they continued, “customers wouldn’t want it any other way.”
It turns out they were wrong about that. A year later, one of the large newspaper groups reduced the size of the paper and saw a surge in circulation numbers. A number of other newspaper groups followed soon thereafter and had a similar experience. Eventually The Guardian changed too. This isn’t surprising if you think about it. If you read the newspaper on the train during your morning commute, then a smaller size is much more convenient to hold. Yet the newspapers had never thought to question this age-old assumption.
Vermeulen then decided to investigate the origins of the broadsheet newspaper, and what he discovered was truly astounding. In 1712, the British government introduced a ta x based on the number of pages that the newspapers printed. The obvious reaction by the newspaper publishers was to increase the size of the pages so that the same information would be spread across fewer pages, leader to a lower total tax bill. That tax law was abolished in 1855. In theory, the newspapers should have reverted to the smaller-page easier-toread format. In reality, however, none of them thought to change the way they had been doing business in the past. This mindset then persisted for over 150 years without anyone questioning ‘the way things are done around here’. Not unlike Granny Nina’s delicious roast beef recipe.
Vermeulen is now convinced that these unwritten rules and assumptions can be found in every industry. He calls them “ineff icient, outdated industry habits which nevertheless continue to persist – things that everybody does and has always been doing a certain way and just continue to do”. He argues that industry progress is hampered by such management myths, and that individual f irms who f igure out such management myths and change t hem may obtain a significant competitive advantage as a result. THE POWER OF ASKING WHY If you’re a parent of a young child, you’ll know that one of the most irritating things your kid can say is: “But why?” For example, you’ve just finished preparing dinner after a hard day at work and you call for your kid to wash hands and sit down at the table. “But why must I wash my hands?” “So that your hands will be clean.” “But why must my hands