How we’ve always done it

How many times have you sat in a meeting where the final answer to why something is being done a particular way is ‘That’s how we’ve always done it’? Every time I hear this statement I’m reminded of a story that was related to me some time ago.

A number of monkeys are put in an enclosure by a group of scientists. In the centre of the cage, attached to the roof by a rope, hangs a banana. Looking ripe and delicious, it’s too much for the monkeys to resist. As soon as the first monkey reaches for it, all five are sprayed with freezing cold water causing them to rapidly retreat. Each time one of them approaches the banana, all five are subjected to the same drenching. Very quickly the group learns not to reach for the banana.

After some time, the scientists replace one of the monkeys with a new monkey. The new entrant, unaware of the consequences starts to move towards the banana. It is immediately attacked by the other four, and continues to be attacked until it two no longer approaches the banana.

Over time, the scientists continue to replace the monkeys one at a time until eventually all of the monkeys have been replaced. Each new monkey coming into the enclosure sees the banana, each time they make a move towards it, each time the other monkeys attack until it too learns not to approach the banana.

Whilst the attacks continue for every new monkey, none of the original monkeys remain in the enclosure; none of the current group have ever been hosed down and none actually know why they need to attack when the banana is approached.

As a complete aside from the main point of this article, I always assumed that this was a somewhat contrived story, but it is generally agreed that it is at least derived from research done by one Gordon R. Stephenson and documented in his 1965 paper “Cultural Acquisition of a Specific Learned Response Among Rhesus Monkeys”. An interesting read if you want to see some of the language we put around abusing monkeys in the name of research.

It does provide a simple allegory for how we take on behaviours without considering whether they remain in any way valid or appropriate.

Habits

Charles Duhigg, in his excellent book The Power of Habit, takes a detailed look at how we take on habits and what we can do about it. For me, one of the most interesting aspects is the discussion on brain activity when dealing with something new by comparison with when doing something ‘habitual’. Spoiler alert, habitual tasks are handled by the brain in an almost automatic, unconscious manner. Effectively you are not actively engaged in the task.

Reflect back on the original statement ‘That’s how we’ve always done it’. What you are being told is that this is, for all intents and purposes, a habit. If it’s a habit, then what you are actually hearing is ‘we stopped thinking about this a long time ago’.

Those of you who know me probably know what’s coming next. If you’re a manager or in a leadership position of any sort, then what you are saying to me is ‘I’m not doing my job’. By falling back on this excuse, you’re abdicating responsibility for the task. Effectively, to me, you’re suggesting that somehow you are not accountable for the outcome because you didn’t set the process through which the outcome is achieved.

Nonsense I’m afraid. As a leader at any level, it is entirely your job to ensure that you are getting the necessary outcome. If you can’t turn ‘we’ve always done it this way’ into ‘this is the best way we’ve found to do this’ then you’re only doing half of the job.

Make no mistake here, it is possible that the way something has always been done may in fact be absolutely appropriate and correct, but there’s a mindset question here. The only occasions where I have heard that statement is where the person speaking has not thought about the problem, and as such can’t justify the approach. To look at it another way, if you can properly justify an approach then in all likelihood you will actually offer the justification rather than some pithy excuse.

Breaking the Cycle

Half the battle in breaking any habit is in the recognition of the problem. In a work context this can be very challenging. When are you supposed to look at these behaviours and make changes? Fortunately, all of the agile processes have a period of reflection built in. At the end of each development cycle, the team or teams should conduct a retrospective where they identify what went well and what didn’t.

Many companies I deal with execute the retrospective poorly, or not at all. This leaves them quite exposed to the dangers of forming poor habits, with little opportunity to correct the behaviour. In a curious example of recursive behaviour they have formed a habit of not reflecting on their habits which allows poor habits to develop.

The first habit to break is the one where you don’t look at your habits. If you’re ignoring the retrospective as part of your process, your ignoring the lifeline that saves you from ‘That’s how we’ve always done it’.

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