We’ve Always Done It That Way

by | Jan 18, 2016 | blog, Business |

Take a deep breath – I’m about to type the 6 most expensive words in business. The 6 words that will prevent your business from making progress, seeing growth or keeping up with your ever-evolving customer base. The 6 words that, in my opinion, form the most dangerous phrase you can say if you want to run a successful business.

‘We’ve always done it this way’. A failure in logical thinking that is referred to as the ‘appeal to tradition fallacy’. It’s something that we’ve all heard at one time or another in business or at home. It’s a conversational shortcut that allows us to avoid wasting time re-treading old ground. It is however, a fallacy, and a dangerous one at that. Here’s why.

Suggesting that ‘we’ve always done it that way’ makes two assumptions that aren’t necessarily true:

1) The current procedure or system worked perfectly when it was introduced.
2) The reasoning that was used when implementing the procedure/system is still valid in the present day.

The first point makes the assumption that the process or system that was originally implemented can’t be improved in any way – which is often incorrect. The second assumes that circumstances haven’t changed since the process was introduced. Again, not very likely. It should be fairly obvious that these are both quite courageous assumptions to make for any business!

When change is suggested and the response is ‘but we’ve always done it this way’, it is a major red flag for me. It shuts down the conversation before anyone has a chance to impart any new information and it implies that the current way of thinking is infallible. As the idiom goes, pride comes before a fall.

In many cases, the reasoning behind the decisions that have been made in the past is still valid. If that is the case, we should still be looking at the reasoning behind that course of action and appraising its efficiency. Is there a way we can tweak the process to make it work better or improve performance? Are there better ways of achieving the results we want? Can we reinvent the process to avoid common problems, or try implementing a new solution instead? All of these are judgement calls that decision makers should (and need) to make about every aspect of their business. By brushing these suggestions aside with ‘we’ve always done it this way’, then you are closing off the possibility of improvement. This course of action is actively harming your business, and soon you will start to stagnate while others leap ahead of you.

Avoid Becoming The Monkeys Uncle

There is a fantastic article by behavioural psychiatrist Leslie Durr that likens the ‘we’ve always done it this way’ response to research done in the 1960’s with monkeys. This is the simplified version:

You start the experiment with 5 monkeys in a cage with a set of steps. Place a banana at the top of the steps and wait for a monkey to approach the stairs to get it. When it touches the stairs, spray all of the other monkeys with cold water. Continue to do this every time any monkey attempts to climb the stairs, and eventually the individual climbing will be attacked by the other monkeys. They know what will happen if he climbs, and they try to prevent it. Now replace one of the monkeys with a new one. This monkey will instantly try to climb the stairs, and be shocked when he is attacked by all of the other monkeys. Eventually he will stay away from the stairs as well. Now replace another monkey. All of the other monkeys (including the previous newcomer) will attack the new monkey when it goes for the banana. One by one, replace all of the monkeys. You now have a set of monkeys who will not attempt to climb the stairs and reach the banana, despite the fact that none of them had ever been sprayed with the cold water. If they could talk, they would say ‘we’ve always done it this way’.

Resistance to change is a common ailment among established organisations. Without reappraisal, ‘the rules’ or ‘the way of doing business’ that have perhaps been in place from the beginning, serve to make the organisation inflexible and inefficient. Critical thinking is the lifeblood of problem solving, and reappraisal is a huge piece of the larger critical puzzle. If we abandon reappraisal and re-evaluation then we abandon our ability to stay ahead of the competition and continue giving our customers what they want.

The purpose of this blog is not to give advice – but to propose two questions. Have you ever given this dismissive response when being questioned about practices? And how can you avoid the pitfall of the appeal to tradition?

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