Very quickly, a dynamic developed where any time a monkey attempted to climb the staircase the other four would hold it back in order to avoid a further drenching. The monkeys learned that climbing the ladder to retrieve the bananas was ‘against the rules’ and the scientists put away the hose.
Over the next half hour, the scientists began replacing the remaining original monkeys one by one until none of the initial group remained in the room. Interestingly, as each new monkey entered the room, it would quickly learn through peer pressure that climbing the stairs was not to be attempted. All of the monkeys would beat the others if they even attempted to scale the stairs in pursuit of the bananas — even though none of them had any experience or knowledge of the cold- water treatment. The staircase became off-limits even though none of the monkeys knew why. It was simply ‘the way we do things around here’.
Frank Vermeulen, associate professor of strategy and entrepreneurship at the London Business School, points to the fact that the behaviour of the monkeys is not unlike what happens with human beings. Over time, we too develop processes, routines, habits and traditions that we repeat habitually long after we forget the original reason for their existence.
This would be fine, of course, if the world around us stood still — but it doesn’t. Things around us are changing faster than ever before and we must run faster and faster just to keep up. Many decades ago, Walmart founder Sam Walton observed: ‘You can’t just keep doing what works one time, because everything around you is always changing. To succeed, you have to stay out in front of that change.’
And this is the chief problem with traditions. They codify a practice or approach that worked once but may no longer be appropriate or effective. Compounding this, as humans we are creatures of habit who tend to gravitate toward the familiar, the proven and the predictable. We are built to seek out and find patterns. Any certainty is better than uncertainty. As a result, most organisations and many individuals have an instinctive reflex to resist and even fear change.
Worse yet, we have a dangerous tendency to attach our identity to the past — seeing traditions as central to ‘who we are’ rather than simply ‘something that we do’.
For many years, US military requirements stated that firing a cannon required three men. According to a detailed operations manual, one soldier holds the cannon, one loads ammunition, and the third one literally stands there. The reason for this third person requirement was simple: originally the third man’s job was to hold the horse so that it wouldn’t be spooked by the sound of the cannon’s explosion. Naturally, this role was necessary when the operations manual was written, as cannons were always dragged into battle by a horse.
Despite the fact that horses had been superseded by new technology many decades before, the old three-person rule stuck even though it no longer served any purpose or made any sense. It was not until relatively recently that this outdated procedure was called into question and the operations manual was updated — about 150 years after it should have been!
Especially in a time like this, holding on to any sense of familiarity and certainty is tempting. When so much is up in the air, tradition can feel like the only way to hold onto sanity and identity.
The reality is that there is a subtle but significant difference between being in a groove and being in a rut. Working with many large corporations and government agencies, I often find organisations are very adept at discovering ever more efficient ways to do ineffective things — and some of these ineffective, outdated and outmoded traditions are the very things sapping their momentum.
In fairness, traditions have their role and place. After all, they can be a key part of building a strong culture, a sense of belonging and a connection with heritage. In organisations, they also provide ‘corporate memory’, which means that we don’t have to reinvent the wheel every six months or panic every time a staff member leaves.
Doing what is conventional is easy, comforting and very tempting, but if we are not careful it can also be highly crippling, preventing us from the progress needed to survive.
We find ourselves now at a pivotal moment. In all spheres of life – personal, professional, practical – we have been confronted with a way of doing things that has torn our tradition away from us. As we move forward into a new version of normal, whenever and however that may arrive, it will be essential to decide which traditions are worth bringing with us and which can be left in isolation.
At this pivotal moment, every organisation and individual must make a choice: will you allow the way you’ve done things in the past to act as an anchor that holds you back, or a rudder that guides you forward?