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This chapter is from the book

The Way Things Are Done

Rear Admiral Grace Hopper said, "The most damaging phrase in the English language is 'It's always been done that way,'" and I tend to agree.

We all resist change, even if we know deep down inside that it would be for the best, and no shortage of rationalization takes place to help us maintain the status quo. We invent all manner of excuses for preferring the current situation to any change, and when all else fails, we fall back on the old standard.

It is important to recognize that change comes in many shapes and sizes, from those changes that are essential for our survival to the changes that will set us back several steps, from trivial tweaks to overwhelming disruptions. We need to train our minds to recognize opportunities where a change can add value, instead of simply refusing to take on any changes at all.

If you ever run into a situation where you can't possibly comprehend the value of the task you are being asked to do, ask around. There may be a chance that the rationale for performing a task is truly valid, but just not clear on the surface. If nobody can give you a valid justification for doing the work, there is a significant problem here that needs to be addressed. In most cases, it makes sense to focus your efforts on tasks that more clearly contribute to the organization's goals.

If the organization refuses to act on evidence of dysfunction—if you can't find out why you are being asked to do something—perhaps the problem runs deeper. At some places, all manner of tasks are performed simply because people have been told to do them, with no regard to the bigger picture. The internal cost of this overhead can be huge, and the human cost of not knowing where you contribute to the overall perspective can be just as devastating.

Questioning activities needs to be balanced against the potential for inflicting too much change too quickly in an organization. When a significant amount of effort is wasted on activities that don't clearly contribute to the overall vision, be careful not to introduce too much change. The associated hysteresis (and resulting hysteria) can be as strongly negative as the original undirected activities. Pick a few key changes, make the adjustments, assess the results, and then pick the next key areas. There will always be areas to tweak. Change is not a one-stop proposition.

When developing or adjusting a defined approach for your organization, always consider why you are taking the approach you have chosen. There should be sound rationale for each step of the process, beyond rationalizations such as "that's what we've always done," or "that's the standard for this process," or "it was easy to do it this way."

A significant part of any defined approach should be to provide clear justification of the rationale for each of the steps, to identify the situations where the suggested approach will and won't work, and which issues may arise. Even if you aren't in an organization where people will ask these very important questions, how could you possibly justify deploying something that hasn't been validated against these benchmarks?

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