I've been thinking about this topic a lot the last couple weeks. I've seen it happening with bigger companies, smaller companies or even in politics.
I even recently caught myself saying this exact phrase after someone asked me why we do certain things at my company. I replied with: "Well, we've always done it that way." And in this moment, I felt the stupidity of my answer. I couldn't fully justify what I just said.
Sure, sometimes it can be a legit answer. Tradition isn't anything other than "Because we've always done it that way." There is some kind of peace in consistency, keeping it the same and doing it the way it always has been done. We're creatures of habit, after all.
But I'm beginning to think these seven words are what's wrong with pretty much everything. Just because we've always done it like this doesn't mean it's the best way of doing it. We've become a slave to rituals when we have no idea where they originate from.
You might have heard about the story with the five monkeys. It's a simplified story about a research project G. R. Stephenson performed in the 60's on a group of monkeys.
Disclaimer: The story below is highly simplified. It's been told many times, and chances are high that someone on the internet tried to debunk it. In any regard, I think it's a perfect metaphor.
Here is how the experiment went:
1. Start with a room containing five monkeys. In the room, hang a banana on a string and put stairs under it. You don't need to wait long and a monkey will go to the stairs and start climbing towards the banana.
2. Now, as soon as the monkey touches the stairs, spray all the monkeys with cold water as punishment. After a while, another monkey gives it a try with the same result – all the monkeys are sprayed with cold water.
3. Next step, turn off the cold water. If, later, another monkey tries to climb the stairs, the other monkeys will try to prevent it even though no water sprays at them.
4. Now, remove one monkey from the cage and replace it with a new one. The new ape sees the banana and wants to climb the stairs. To his horror, all of the monkeys attack him. After another attempt and attack, he knows that if he tries to climb the stairs, he will be punished.
5. 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 newcomer takes part in the punishment with enthusiasm.
6. Again, replace a third original monkey with a new one. The new one makes it to the stairs and is attacked as well. Two of the four monkeys that beat 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.
7. After replacing the fourth and fifth original monkey, all the monkeys that were sprayed with cold water have been replaced.
Nevertheless, no monkey ever again approaches the stairs, but no one really knows why. All the original monkeys who experienced the water-spraying punishment have been replaced.
What we're left with are five monkeys who know that they can't touch the banana, but they don't really know why. Because that's the way it's always been done around here.
Now of course, this study is supposed to be a metaphor for humans. We live in times of complex structures, both organizational and political. And in many cases, we justify specific behavior with: "It's always been done that way."
Not many of us question WHY, and even fewer of us try to challenge the status quo. Because all we know is that we're not allowed to go close to the stairs and eat the banana. We don't know why, but we conform to these unspoken rules.
Having learned "the rules" we accept them without witnessing any personal experience that either confirms or denies the existence of them. In the end, we become resistant to change simply by submitting ourselves to unjustifiable rules.
I personally like to remind myself of the monkey story every other week to make sure I know why I'm doing certain things.
It's of course OK to follow protocol if there is a particular reason behind it, but if the reason is simply "Because we've always done it that way," there might be a huge flaw in the system that no one is aware of.