One of the most curious things I have seen and experienced, in numerous organizations, is the willingness and desire to adhere to something no matter the consequences. It could be the manner in which a process is carried out, perhaps the approach to sales, or even how systems are developed. There is a method to this madness. In nearly every instance where I witnessed this, it was replicating an action that at some point in the past produced a win.

traditionPeople like wins. It makes them feel validated in their efforts and that can be a very healthy reward. The real head-scratcher is why people continue doing these things when they don’t produce the win. There is a dogmatic response when these behaviors are questioned or challenged within organizations. I have found it is often veiled behind a cheap facade with a culture sticker slapped on it. Painfully transparent and mildly offensive to think anyone would actually believe that tripe, but alas…the desire to perpetuate the familiar frequently masquerades as “being the right thing to do”.

The problem lies in the perspective and belief in the tradition. Organizations love stories, as they should, because they are a great way to reinforce the culture. All positive there. The story of how this behavior or that behavior produced a win for the organization became the fodder of organizational lore. It entrenched itself within the company narrative and now it has grown roots and become a tradition.

Meanwhile, the organization has changed. The needs of the company has changed. The needs and demands of the customer has changed. The marketplace has changed. Leadership within the organization has changed. Even with all this change, there is this irrational belief that this behavior (in whatever context), which happened years ago, is somehow still relevant and applicable today. Often times it was a behavior acted in a specific capacity in a specific setting and in a specific department. Big win!! Let’s make it “scalable”. I think I just threw up in my mouth a little.

Here are some tips on how to stick with the wins and ditch the traditions:

  • End the sainthood – Stop glorifying something that happened in the past. Use the story to the extent it is needed and ACCURATE. Trying to make an event or process the organizational messiah is only deepening the emotional commitment to a tradition that won’t always serve the needs of the organization.
  • Understand context – Give the people and the effort that got the win the recognition and adulation they deserve. They earned it. It’s also important to understand all of the contributing factors that  led up to the win. Look for broad themes and see where they exist elsewhere in your organization. Encourage the theme, not the exact process. That will probably give you a bit more mileage out of the effort. Even then, don’t make it a dogmatic issue that ALWAYS produces a win. It simply doesn’t work that way.
  • Revisit current traditions – Every organization has the “familiar” way of doing something. Critically think about why you do them. Ditch the emotional investment you may have in it and objectively critique its merit. Is the continuance of this tradition going to produce a win or merely perpetuate the comfort that came from a past win in hopes it will re-create itself?
  • Make changes interesting – If – dare I say “When” – you uncover these stale and unfruitful traditions, make the alternative something fun and interesting. Create a contest. Ask people to explain how it can contribute to the current goals, vision and focus of the organization. Sometimes getting people to think out loud about it will gain awareness of its efficacy – or lack of it.

Traditions are a part of culture and your organization has its own. Some are there to just keep the values of the culture in plain sight, but some are there out of familiarity. It is your responsibility as a leader to seek out the stale traditions and replace them with new ideas.

What are some examples where you have seen fruitless traditions that were mindlessly perpetuated out of familiarity?