Thursday, March 13, 2008

That's the Way It's Always Been Done Around Here!

I HATE this phrase. When I worked at New York Road Runners, there was absolutely nothing that would send me through the roof faster than someone giving this as a reason for why we did something, because most of the time it wasn't followed up with a detailed explanation of how that policy came to be. It was just accepted and never questioned if it could be done better or differently. And then when it finally was questioned, there was push back to change a procedure that no one knew how or why got started in the first place.

Graduation is nearing and a lot of you may be starting new jobs in the coming months. In the spirit of that, here's a recommendation I received from someone that I'll pass along to you. Anytime you take a new job, you're going to come across policies and procedures that will cause you to ask "why do we do it that way?" For the first 90 days, note these, then find out why. There may be a good reason that the company does something a certain way, but then again, maybe the answer is "because that's the way it's always been done around here," which is a common, but dumb, answer. There's a popular story about monkeys that relates. I first read it in A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future by Daniel Pink and I've seen it on numerous websites since.

Start with a cage containing five monkeys. Inside the cage, hang a banana on a string and place a set of stairs under it. Before long, a monkey will go to the stairs and start to climb towards the banana. As soon as he touches the stairs, spray all of the other monkeys with cold water. After a while, another monkey makes an attempt with the same result - all the other monkeys are sprayed with cold water. Pretty soon, when another monkey tries to climb the stairs, the other monkeys will try to prevent it.

Now, put away the cold water. Remove one monkey from the cage and replace it with a new one. The new monkey sees the banana and wants to climb the stairs. To his surprise and horror, all of the other monkeys attack him. After another attempt and attack, he knows that if he tries to climb the stairs, he will be assaulted. Next, remove another of the original five monkeys and replace it with a new one. The newcomer goes to the stairs and is attacked. The previous newcomer takes part in the punishment with enthusiasm! Likewise, replace a third original monkey with a new one, then a fourth, then the fifth. Every time the newest monkey takes to the stairs, he is attacked. Most of the monkeys that are beating him have no idea why they were not permitted to climb the stairs or why they are participating in the beating of the newest monkey.

After replacing all the original monkeys, none of the remaining monkeys have ever been sprayed with cold water. Nevertheless, no monkey ever again approaches the stairs to try for the banana. Why not? Because as far as they know that’s the way it’s always been done around here.

The point is that for the first 90 days you are a fresh pair of eyes and a fresh brain looking at something that others have looked at for a long time. You'll never have the perspective of a "new" person again. Take advantage of it and use it to benefit you and your new company with each new role you take on. You may come up with a great idea for a new and more efficient way to do things that others just simply didn't see. If your company is smart, they'll value your feedback and at least consider your suggestions.

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