Do It the Way You Always Have and You Won’t Be Doing It For Long

“The most damaging phrase in the language is: ‘We’ve always done it this way’.” – Rear Admiral Grace Murray Hopper

Born in New York City in 1906, Hopper was a pioneering computer scientist and recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom. She joined the US Navy during World War II and was assigned to program one of the earliest computers, the Mark 1 Computer, an electromechanical machine that had a part in the development of the atomic bomb.

She continued to work in computing after the war, leading the team that created the first computer language compiler, which led to the popular COBOL language.

It’s her comment that most struck me. I must admit, I am kind of a sucker for a good quote, especially when it aligns with my thoughts.

I have a client that is in an industry speeding forward into major transformation, however the leadership team is dominated by people who have “always done it this way.”

Change is upon us

I write this sitting on a plane heading to Asia. As I read Hopper’s quote I could not get over the thought that the dynamics of our workforce have changed drastically. Doing things the way we’ve always done them is a sure road to failure. It’s a mindset that needs a quick burial.

I was working with a group a few weeks back and we got on the topic of tenure. I jokingly thought that the business of a gold watch as an award for long term service was well over, when someone in the group said that just the other day someone was honored for 35 years of service.

That prompted me to observe that each year you will have fewer and fewer of these people; the incoming crop of new recruits will NEVER stay with you that long, nor should you want them to.

M&A activity now puts human capital on the forefront of potential deals, with the DNA of a workforce examined to see if it is compatible. This approach tries to avoid “bad marriages” caused by cultures carved in stone, cultures that “always do it that way.”

Always be learning

We all must occasionally come up for air to see what is going on around us. That is why I love the internet – it is like having my own public library. I can read, research topics, get a view on the inner workings of innovative companies.

You have to become a student of your industry, a student of your business and a student of your career. There is no other way, regardless of where you are in your professional pursuit.

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This also means that you have to challenge your work force to question everything and feel free to experiment. Think of a better way, try it. The CEO of WD-40 tells all his employees, especially new ones, “We don’t make mistakes here, we have learning moments.” This mindset should be spread throughout your business. Your leaders should evangelize this message in all of their meetings and interactions.

Ideas come from everywhere

Groundbreaking ideas or solutions are not title aligned. Just because you have a few letters behind your name (VP, SVP, EVP, CEO), does not equate to superior knowledge. Not to downplay the efforts, but all those titles or certifications mean is that you have studied, tested and were successful in some pursuit. They do not mean you have an extra dose of brain power.

Imagine for a minute that your employees were singularly focused on testing new ideas, asking the question, “Why are we still doing it this way?” That kind of mindset for an organization would be a game changer.

So develop a workforce that says, “We are all in this together and we must all keep our thinking hats on at all times.”

It can be done. It is an innovative mindset, an agile mindset, an out of the box mindset or whatever phrase you like. But ban the “always done it this way.”

Try it because you have no other choice.

Ron Thomas is Managing Director, Strategy Focused Group DWC LLC, based in Dubai. He is also a senior faculty member and representative of the Human Capital Institute covering the MENA/Asia Pacific region.

He was formerly CEO of Great Place to Work-Gulf and former CHRO based in Riyadh. He holds certifications from the Human Capital Institute as Global Human Capital Strategist, Master Human Capital Strategist, and Strategic Workforce Planner.

He's been cited by CIPD as one of the top 5 HR Thinkers in the Middle East. He received the Outstanding Leadership Award for Global HR Excellence at the World Human Resources Development Congress in Mumbai, and was named as one of the 50 Most Talented Global HR Leaders in Asia

Ron's prior roles included senior HR positions with Xerox HR services, IBM, and Martha Stewart Living.

Board memberships include the Harvard Business Review Advisory Council, McKinsey Quarterly's Executive Online Panel, and HCI's Expert Advisory Council on Talent Management Strategy.

His work has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, Inc. Magazine, Workforce Management and numerous international HR magazines covering Africa, India and the Middle East.

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