Employer Branding

When is “We’ve Always Done it that Way” a Valid Excuse?

When working in an office setting, there are certain themes or quotes that gain popularity, and suddenly you hear them over and over. Most are intended to be motivational or inspirational, and apply to everyone in a corporate environment in one way or another.

One that I seem to hear a lot lately is, “The most dangerous thing you can say is, ‘We’ve always done it that way.’” I understand the point of the quote – those who are adverse to change get left behind. But the saying only looks at one side of the coin – sometimes, the reason it’s always been done that way is because other ways have been tried and proven ineffective.

In my experience, there’s only one reason to implement change – to make things better than they used to be. It’s true that experimentation by creative minds leads to improved methodology. In a recent article on about the rewards of hiring risk-takers, it’s evident that employers who welcome change often see the most significant employee contributions. This is evidenced by 3M’s Post-it notes and Amazon’s Prime loyalty program – both unique and lucrative ideas introduced by employees.

The problem lies in changes that are not for the better. Just because change can be implemented doesn’t necessarily mean it should. Let’s look at a few types of changes that may be counterproductive.

The experiment:

This is simply the “let’s try something new and see if it works” approach. Sometimes the gamble pays off; but if the research hasn’t been done and all possible outcomes thought through, the fallout can be catastrophic.

Case in point – Ron Johnson’s decision to change J.C. Penney’s pricing strategy in early 2012. In an attempt to mirror Apple’s marketing plan, the retail chain’s CEO decided to eliminate sales and coupons, resorting instead to touting everyday low prices. The strategy failed to take into consideration their core customers’ love of sales, coupons and bargain hunting, and led to Johnson’s dismissal less than 17 months later. Not only has the change been considered one of the greatest marketing blunders in retail history, but J.C. Penney has struggled to regain their customer base ever since, proving that sometimes it’s better to do things “the way we’ve always done them.”

The territory marker:

This type of change can be seen when new leadership enters an organization. Once established, they begin making various changes simply to demonstrate authority. The changes serve no real purpose other than to let everyone know that there’s a new sheriff in town, and he’ll be calling the shots. After employees have adapted to the “out with the old, in with the new” mentality, management usually realizes that things were done the old way for a reason – because that’s what worked – and they gradually start changing things back to the way they were.

Just because:

These are changes simply made out of boredom. While I mentioned earlier that the only reason to change things is to make them better than the way they were, one exception would be to change them simply to keep the process from getting stale. The change may or may not yield better results than the old way, but at least it’s a change, and sometimes, as Bill Murray states in the movie Groundhog Day, “Anything different is good.” If the results of the change prove less effective, things can always be changed back, and the positive effects of a simple variation in procedure are doubled.

I believe the overall point of the original quote is directed at employers who are not open to suggestions from employees. Hanging on to outdated processes out of tradition when forward-thinking employees’ ideas and innovations are systematically disregarded is not only ignorant, but is sure to kill both productivity and employee morale. But not all change is good and should be welcomed, and this may not be immediately evident by both employees and management. In the end, the consequences of any change must be weighed like any business decision. If the projected outcome isn’t favorable, and it’s not broken, don’t fix it.

By John Feldmann

John Feldmann is a Senior Communications Specialist for Insperity in Houston, TX. With over a decade of marketing and employment branding experience in the recruiting and human resources industries, John specializes in employment- and HR-related content development for a variety of media types in order to communicate Insperity's brand to both business professionals and job seekers. Follow John on X @John_Feldmann.