We’ve Always Done It That Way

People bad-mouth a new way of doing something because “we’ve always done it that way.”  I have heard people chastise others using that expression dozens of times.  I’ve even used it myself.  Forbes called it “the most dangerous phrase in business.”  But what’s missing in that reputation is that there is a great reason people do things the way they’ve always been done before.  We’re going to talk a little about when to change and when to fall back on “we’ve always done it that way.”

Why do we do things the way they’ve always been done?

A well-respected authority on influence, Robert Cialdini, identified six principles of influence or persuasion.  (Reciprocation, commitment and consistency, social proof, liking, authority, and scarcity).   “Commitment and consistency” is important because we first commit to a decision, and then intrinsically and fiercely are consistent with our mental choice on the matter.  Its a two-step process.  Cialdini says that this principle is ingrained in our makeup as humans because it helps us live life.  Biologically, we value commitment and consistency because when we are presented with new information, it gives us the ability to choose to think about it less or avoid thinking about it entirely. 

“Once we have made up our minds about an issue, stubborn consistency allows us a very appealing luxury: We really don’t have to think hard about the issue anymore.  We don’t have to sift through the blizzard of information we encounter every day to identify relevant facts; …. or expend the mental energy to weigh the pros and cons; we don’t have to make any further tough decisions.”  – Robert Cialdini

The data wave upon us

Cialdini’s principle is vitally important today. Within the past decade we as people are consuming more information than ever before.  Regardless of if you’re surfing the net or walking down the street, our professional and personal lives have become a sea of information.  We are increasingly hit with suggestions to try a new product or service, or consider a new process, idea, or activity.

According to Science Daily, researchers in 2013 found that “a full 90% of all the data in the world had been generated over the last two years.” The sheer volume of data being created and put in front of us today is staggering.  In that respect, for most of us most of the time, doing things the way they’ve always been done has not only become important, but critical, to simply functioning in today’s society.

Why is it such a challenge to change things?

There are several good reasons people respond with “we’ve always done it that way.”

  1. Time, Effort, and Money: The time, effort, and money you expend working on improving one process are time, effort, and money you no longer have to spend on another.  This is the basic principle of opportunity cost.  You also want the resources you spend to be worth the return you get.  Spending $1,000 on a product you can only sell once for $100 would be silly.

As an example, I think about this same trade off of time and effort when it comes to making pasta from scratch.  Pasta is absolutely delicious if it’s made from scratch.  But if I have only 20 minutes to make dinner, fresh pasta just isn’t going to happen.  I also have to see if I care enough about the difference in taste.  Do I appreciate fresh pasta more than store-bought enough to spend the time making it myself?

  1. Risk: When we decide to experiment with a method, process, or decision, we are deciding to risk the successful results of the way we’ve always done it in exchange for the pursuit of a new idea.  This can be low risk, like ordering Chinese food after my attempt at homemade pasta proves inedible.  It can also be high risk, like a company’s board of directors switching the management company that operates its business.  There are many ways we can reduce risk, and there are people whose entire job is risk mitigation.  But the risk is necessary if we want to get to the reward of greater performance, output, or experience.

COVID-19 and 2020: A time of forced change

Normally in a company, we get to choose what projects we want to work on and in what order.  Employees, consultants, and leaders evaluate and research problem areas or pinpoint top areas for growth.  We can estimate the resources necessary for a project in both manpower and cash flow and prioritize projects to match those resources.  We can test solutions in safe environments until we’re satisfied before releasing them to the public.

COVID-19 threw that capability out the window.  Right now, many businesses have been forced to invent new systems, processes, products, and services.  They have been forced to try new methods that they may have never otherwise considered.  Businesses may be adopting projects at a rate that is ill-advised because if they do not adapt, they will certainly die.  They may have had to reallocate resources and dedicate effort to projects they didn’t anticipate.  Instead of carefully choosing the highest priority projects for their long-term growth, they may be gambling with borrowed resources to take their best shot on a project that will sustain them through this crisis.  Some of these forced projects will be successful.  They will give customers new products and services that they will now love.  Some of these forced projects will provide just what the customer wanted.

When does change become too much?

The trouble with COVID is that many people and companies have been forced to change many processes and products all at the same time.  The supply chain has been shaken.   Small, medium, and large companies that have not been able to bridge that gap are filing for bankruptcy or closing their doors.  The numbers of unemployed workers and filings for evictions are dismal.  People and businesses alike are just trying to hang in there.  According to MetLife’s Annual U.S. Employee Benefit Trends Study, even before COVID-19, employees often felt stressed and burned out due to the pressures of a modern working environment. COVID-19 has only made that worse, as the post COVID-19 survey results clearly show.

Change demands resources, attention and effort, and “too big and too much” is indeed exhausting.  Trying new things or doing the same things in new ways is vital to the success of people and companies.  The phrase “because we’ve always done it that way” is okay when the processes and avenues have been considered and weighed.  It is dangerous for the company, though, when we are afraid of trying something new or losing control or when an employee is just plain disengaged.  Management is an important part of that puzzle as well. Having leadership that supports making mistakes as a natural part of growing, and supports employee welfare, and professional growth is important to the success of both the individual and the company.

What to Say Instead:

The next time you make a suggestion which is greeted with some variation of “we’ve always done it that way” stop and think again.

  • Research your case well.  Thoroughly assess both the current system and the system you’re proposing to adopt
  • Present the work involved and results clearly and thoroughly.  Make sure the person with whom you’re speaking can visualize those details about the project as well as you can.
  • Demonstrate a clear quantifiable return on investment.  Who will get the credit for the result?  If you’re talking with someone who is going to do the work, their perception may be different from that of someone who isn’t.  This is especially true if the worker is unlikely to get credit or management doesn’t value the project.
  • Address what resources are needed.  Detail exactly what resources you will need and the process you’ll follow to obtain them.  The person with whom you’re speaking might have no idea where to begin, who can do it, or how long it will take.
  • Different people want different levels of detail to make a decision.  Could this person be persuaded with more or less detail?
  • If you’ve checked off all of the above points, and are still getting objections, try to figure out why.  Are there other scheduled projects that provide greater benefits or are favored by higher management?

Next Time

Remember, it’s not just what you say, it’s also how you say it, who you say it to, and the timing of what you say.  If you present a really great new idea to your boss or colleague when they’re swamped with another project, no matter how good the idea, the answer will probably always be a no.  Wait until your listener has time to actually listen.  Until then, bide your time and work on your proposal, just “the way it’s always been done.”

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