Museum Leaders and We’ve Always Done It That Way

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Imagine this: You’re in a planning meeting. The discussion is momentarily rich, the whiteboard populated with words, phrases, and ideas. In the middle of it all, someone says, “But we can’t do that. We’ve always done it this way.” We’ve all heard it. It’s frequently offered, usually without malice, as if a higher being had just parted the clouds and offered your organization a sign that says DON’T CHANGE ANYTHING.

We know–even the person who uses the phrase knows–that past successes don’t predict the future especially in a world as lightning fast as ours. Yet museums and heritage organizations persist in trotting out the same programs in the same way, year after year. They resemble a virus. You’ve had it before, you’ve got it again.

Through the magic of Google I learned that Grace Murray Hopper (1906-1992), a pioneer computer scientist with a PhD in math from Yale, was the first person to point out how dangerous that phrase is.  In 1976 she wrote, “On the future of data processing, the most dangerous phrase a DP manager can use is “We’ve always done it that way.” Hopper was a rear admiral in the Navy so she understood what it means to work in a tradition-bound organization although the clock in her office ran counter-clockwise if that tells you anything. Admittedly, Hopper is a total aside; she’s here to point out that if a woman in a highly-regulated, hierarchical, hide-bound organization can think like that, you can too.

But what if–even if you don’t like the scheduled program or event–it’s a crowd pleaser? Should you change something that’s a cash cow just for the sake of change? The New York City Ballet doesn’t say “Let’s skip the Nutcracker this year. It will be more fun to do something modern during the holidays.” And you shouldn’t skip your metaphorical Nutcracker either. But you can change the process and the way you plan. Just doing that is a big step towards changing your organizational culture. And as a leader, remember, resistance to change isn’t irrational. Often these events come at the busiest time of year when staff is already stressed, and may (rightly) feel if it “ain’t” broke why fix it?

So here are some thoughts, (in no particular order), about breaking out of the we’ve-always-done-it-that-way loop.

  1. Don’t let discussion end when the WADITW phrase is uttered. Ask the person to explain how and why the old way is still better. Keep talking.
  2. If you want to depersonalize discussion, ask a staff member to play the devil’s advocate at the start of the meeting, arguing the counter-intuitive position for the group.
  3. Ask everyone to finish the phrase, “But what if we….” in relation to the project, program or event.
  4. Build a post-mortem into all your events, programs and projects. Allow staff to evaluate while it’s fresh in their minds, and lay out possible changes for the coming year—or scrap the whole thing.
  5. Don’t let this become a Millennial versus Boomer problem. Younger staff don’t advocate change because they’re young. They advocate change because they look at problems differently. That’s what Boomers did in the ’70’s. Now it’s someone else’s turn.
  6. Listen. Really, really listen especially to the folks who are on the front lines of whatever event you’re evaluating.

Strong organizations grow. They grow by adapting, and adaptation happens intentionally. Repetitive behavior stunts growth. That’s not what your organization needs. Be the mold-breaker. Channel your inner Grace Murray Hopper and set the clock going the other way.

Joan Baldwin

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3 Comments on “Museum Leaders and We’ve Always Done It That Way”

  1. We have a manager who begins meetings by warning us he doesn’t want to hear the phrase “we have always did it this way”.

  2. Ka says:

    I’ve faced this issue with a former assistant ED who didn’t want me to pay an intern because “We had never done that in the past”. I put a stipend for an intern in my budget and went through the board…they thought it was a great idea. Now we have at least one paid internship a year.
    I hate that phrase! Thanks for the article.

  3. PS says:

    I worked for an organization at one time that was run by the phrase, “This is how we’ve always done it.” We tried out a new schedule for some of the front line staff that was a little easier on them and allowed them to have more of a life outside of the organization. It was vetoed by the director who started out in their job 30 years ago because she had to deal with the terrible schedule, so why shouldn’t they? She also refuses to raise pay scales for the same reason. “Well back when I started here, I made $X an hour and that was good money! They’re already making four times as much as I did!” And meanwhile, the organization suffers because they have trouble attracting and retaining qualified people, who can get better pay and easier schedules at other places.

    It’s like that place is preserved in amber in more ways than just personnel policies.


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