The most dangerous phrase in business is: “We’ve always done it this way”.
Have you ever heard this phrase used in the workplace? Chances are you have, and probably quite often.
When you question a practice that seems to defy logic, the answer is likely to be, “That’s the way we’ve always done it.” The response shifts whatever blame there may be to some unnamed person at some unnamed time in the past. The response also indicates no thinking is going to go into whether what has been done in the past is the best course for the future.
Here’s an example
At best, “That’s the way we’ve always done it” is only partially true. Consider the story of the young girl helping her mother prepare Christmas dinner.
Before placing the ham in the oven…
Before placing the ham in the oven for baking, the mother cut off both ends. “Why did you cut off the ends of the ham?” asked the daughter. “That’s the way my mother always did it,” was the reply.
The daughter quickly vanished. In moments, she was on the telephone to the grandmother verifying whether what she had been told was true. The grandmother replied that she did, indeed, always cut the ends off the ham. When asked why, the grandmother replied, “That’s the way my mother always did it.”
As fate would have it, the next week brought about a visit from great-grandmother. Overcome with curiosity, as young children often are, nothing would do but to pose this same question.
“Great Grandmother, Mum always cuts the ends off her ham before she puts it in the oven. Mum says she does it because that’s the way Grandmother always did it. Grandmother says she did it because that’s the way you always did it. Is it true, Great Grandmother? Did you always cut the ends off the ham?”
“Yes, indeed, my child, I always cut the end off the ham” replied the elderly woman.
“But why?” asked the young girl.
Holding her hands about 12 inches apart, she replied, “Because my pan was only this big.”
Decades ago, Great Grandmother was confronted with a set of circumstances. Her pan was not large enough to accommodate the ham. She came up with procedures to handle those circumstances. She did the best she could with what she had.
What if we were to confront today’s challenges the way Great Grandmother in the story confronted hers? What is we did the best we could with what we have? What we have keeps getting better, meaning what was “best” back then is far from “best” by today’s standards.
What if we re-framed the question?
What if we re-framed “that’s the way we’ve always done it” to embody a standard of quality rather than a particular act? I imagine we would spend more time challenging outdated practices, more time learning the tools at our disposal, and less time carrying on with practices which worked in a bygone era. Change can be hard.
If we look to the past for examples of doing the best they could with what they had, we also throw down the gauntlet to generations to come. We issue the challenge not to mindlessly carry on as we did, but to build on our accomplishments.
Our circumstances change. Our procedures must change with them. Our ancestors understood that. Do we?