This is the Way We Have Always Done It

I learned a new expression recently.

“Jumping the shark” means holding on to an idea that has run its course.  It originally referred to the TV show Happy Days where one particularly silly plot device is now viewed as the moment when the show’s writers officially ran out of ideas.  Rather than give the show a dignified send off, they continued to adopt various lame plots to keep the show going.  Because they had worked once, the show’s plot devices were viewed as a formula to stick with.  In reality the show’s producers should have said “Stick a fork in it.  It is done.”

Some business solutions are like that too.

My first exposure to this phenomenon was early in my career when I worked at a bank.  We had a massive old Telex machine that actually printed out a punched tape.  The tape was fed into a reader that then caused the message to be printed out.  To send a message you used a keyboard to create a tape, then fed the tape into the reader in “send” mode.  Here is a photo of such a device.  Ours was even older and larger than this one. It must have been at least 20 years old.

One day the machine stopped working and I was charged with getting it repaired.  At first I just tried to do what I was asked to do, but I was spinning my wheels trying to find a company that could make the repair.  The fact was that Telex machines had already been replaced with desktop computers.  The solution was not to repair it, but to replace it with a completely different solution.  This important lesson has stuck with me.

“If it is broken fix it” seems logical.  However, it is better to first ask “Is this still a solution to our problem?” and “Has our reality changed?” It is pretty hard to specify solutions that we haven’t yet imagined. Likewise, when we write a technology RFP, we need to be aware that our specifications could be backward looking and unimaginative.  We could be clinging to a way of doing something that has long outlived its usefulness.

It is thus necessary to stay current with the latest thinking in our fields (and related fields as well).  Let’s not spend public funds on fads, but also let’s make sure that we always question our assumptions so we are open to entirely new solutions.

Whenever I hear the words “this is the way we have always done it” I think of that Telex machine.  I admit I get irritated by that phrase and become pretty judgmental as well. It is useful to remember that often these words come from someone who has been disempowered. They are required to adhere to set procedures and are discouraged from asking questions. I am now thinking that a better reaction would be to ask “If you could do this differently, what might that look like?”  Their enthusiasm as well as their solution may surprise you.

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