The most dangerous phrase in the language is “we’ve always done it this way.”
— Grace Hopper
In my lifetime I have heard a few variations of we’ve always done it this way:
- This is just how it is.
- It’s tradition.
- We can’t possibly change it.
I hate them all.
I have no beef with tradition. It has its place, particularly when it comes to cultural traditions and family traditions.
It’s when change is resisted in the work place, or to general day-to-day life, that I begin to have issues.
Tradition is huge at the school where I work. Or, should I say, it was huge. I love it when our Principal says, ‘Just because we’ve always done it this way doesn’t mean it’s a good thing, nor does it mean that we have to keep on doing it.’
If the parents and the kids (and sometimes the staff) LOVE a particular event which is run by the same people, at the same time, in the same way every year — it doesn’t mean they WON’T LOVE an alternative event just as much.
Ideas come and go. People with different passions and skills come and go. The pressure to create a re-run of a certain event is phenomenal. To be told that your ideas are ok, but we have to do it this way is demoralising — particularly when nobody can give you a satisfactory reason why.
A friend told me a wonderful tale just the other day. It goes like this:
Five monkeys were in a cage. There was a ladder in the middle with a bunch of bananas at the top. Every time a monkey went to climb the ladder and get the bananas, the remaining monkeys were soaked with cold water. They came to dislike this, unsurprisingly, and would beat up any monkey who tried to climb the ladder.
Over time, the monkeys were replaced one by one.
Eventually all of the original monkeys who knew about the cold water had been replaced, but the ‘new’ monkeys (who didn’t have the background knowledge) would still beat up any monkey who dared climb the ladder.
The Five Monkeys and a Ladder Social Experiment is believed to never have actually happened; nevertheless it makes for good commentary on management theory and ‘tradition’.
If the new monkeys had been able to speak it is likely they would have said they had no idea why they were beating each other up, other than ‘we’ve always done this when another monkey tries to climb the ladder’.
Whether or not we follow a particular tradition, employ a specific procedure or adhere to a certain ‘rule’ should be based on the merit of the action and the effect it will have on the recipients, not on whether it has always been so.