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The most dangerous phrase in the English language

InTouch - Newsletter - #74

Welcome to the seventy-fourth edition of “In-Touch”. As always, I would love to continue the conversation so please hit reply and let me know what you think.

Story of the Week: "The most dangerous phrase in the English language"

As Governor of Cyprus (1955-1957), Sir John Harding was controversial, authoritarian and extremely disliked by a large share of the population. He was, of course, aware of this, which was why, since his daughter played tennis every evening at the Field Club in Nicosia, he commissioned a police officer to check the premises daily for her safety and security.

You will doubtless be as surprised as I was on learning that, almost 50 years after Cyprus gained its independence in 1960, a police officer continued to carry out the Field Club shift day in, day out!

As the US Navy rear admiral and renowned computer programmer, Grace Hopper, once famously said, “The most dangerous phrase in the language is: We’ve always done it this way.”

The Field Club story perfectly demonstrates the truth of her statement and shows that if no-one ever questions why things are done in certain way, there can be no possibility of gaining the benefits of change. In other words, as long as there is inaction, the status quo will remain in action.

In a recent newsletter, author and former restaurateur Will Guidara provides a great example of the status quo in action in the world of hospitality. He recalls how he was dining at a restaurant with his wife and child when they decided that, since the weather was fine and they were enjoying themselves, they would rather sit on the patio and enjoy the breeze, instead of being cooped up inside. However, when they asked to change table, they were told that since they had ordered drinks at one table, if they wanted to change places, they would have to settle the bill for the first one, leave the premises and come back in to sit where they wanted.

Guidara understood that it was not the server’s fault. Someone in the system was telling them, “We’ve always done it this way.” As he says in his best-selling book Unreasonable Hospitality, “When you ask, ‘Why do we do it this way?’ and the only answer is ‘Because that’s how it’s always been done’, then that rule deserves another look.”

Not questioning ‘the done thing’ has a negative impact on an organisation’s staff, in terms of their morale (the server at the restaurant was very embarrassed by what he had to tell Guidara), on its customers (in terms of their experience) and on its profits (as a consequence of the two previous factors).

When hearing the statement “We’ve always done it this way”, we should be asking “Why?” and “Is it the right thing to do?”

In business, the answer may well be, “Yes, it’s the right thing to do” – we have all heard the phrase ‘If it’s not broken, don’t fix it’ – but in many cases, old-established procedures are being followed when better new ones may be available. And in a changing world, organisations of all kinds need to be constantly reviewing and rethinking the way they do things if they are to remain sustainable and successful.

Words of Wisdom

“No leader or organization can achieve breakout growth until it treats, ‘we've always done it this way’ as an opportunity to think anew rather than as a reason to stop thinking. Keep in mind, tradition should be a guide, not a jailer.” Michael Josephson

A Question to Ponder, dear friend.

“Have you ever been told 'We’ve always done it this way' and wondered why?”