That’s How We’ve Always Done It

old sagging stairs

Have you ever found yourself saying this as you start a project?

Have you ever imposed this criteria on a hired consultant or firm?

Taking this well-worn path is understandable. It’s a great way to breeze through a project without the inconvenience of tripping over new ideas, or asking for permission from a boss who just wants the project done. The boss wants the project “just done,” not because she doesn’t care how it turns out, but because she’s removed herself from the process of knowing how awesome it could be.

Most often, you hear this phrase from large organizations that don’t empower their people to make something they’re proud of. It takes a certain pride of ownership to want to do a recurring project, for example, not by rote but, by asking questions that no one has asked in a while…or ever.

Is this project really necessary? (Really. Or is it just being done because no one has questioned otherwise?)

Who is reading this? (Is it getting to the people who matter most to you?)

Are they required to read it, or are they hungry for this information? (Is it the message they want, or the one you want to tell?)

Can we make their job or decisionmaking easier by how we approach this project? (Builds good will you can bank on later.)

How will we know if we’ve been successful? (Isn’t this what you base your budget and future decisions on, and how you know you’ve reached your goals? Speaking of which, what are those goals?)

The irony is, “This is how we’ve always done it” assumes that those ancient decisions were good ones, made by thoughtful and smart people who gave a damn. These could have been people in your organization or a hired gun whose creation was approved and set in stone, no matter what it looked like.

A cousin to this phrase is ___________ (fill-in-the-blank type of person) don’t need it to look good because ______________ (fill-in-the-blank excuse.)

Beyond types, we are all human. We respond to order, contrast, cleverness, triumph, harmony, beauty, story, inspiration, memorability or legibility in roughly the same way. Yes, even scientists, even engineers.

Different audiences require appropriate versions of the above if you want to be seen and heard.

But to abandon those qualities in favor of walking that same path over and over is to say, “I just don’t care enough to expect this to be great.”

There’s no risk in asking a few questions. You can always go back to the way it’s always been done. But once the bug of thoughtful questions bites you, there’s no turning back.

(Image: Flickr/Soylentgreen23 under a Creative Commons license.)

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