Let’s start with a quiz. It’s only two questions, so I think you’ll survive.
Question #1: If you would like to propose to a woman, which of the following should you offer her as a symbol of your eternal love and devotion?
a) A diamond ring.
b) A Shetland pony.
c) An arcwelder.
Question #2: If you would like the undivided attention of one of your customers, which of the following is the best way to get it?
a) Call them.
b) Send them a text.
c) Send them an email.
d) Send them a message through social media.
Technically there are no wrong answers. It’s possible that you married a welder’s daughter, or maybe you’re the kind of woman who has always wanted to sculpt giant steel lawn ornaments, in which case the arcwelder probably sounds like a great idea. Paint is always nice. And personally, I think half of the married women in the world would have said yes to their husbands if those men had proposed with a pony.
But of course I already know how you answered Question #1, because everyone answers it the same. Thousands of years have trained us to know that the diamond ring is the symbol of an engagement. When you buy a diamond ring and get down on one knee, you’re not being original. You’re not being innovative. You’re not doing something completely unexpected. You’re following a well-established tradition, and you’re doing it because you know that it works.
The same is true for Question #2, for which you almost certainly answered ‘a’ as well. Calling someone on the phone isn’t a novel solution. You’re not taking advantage of a disruptive technology or changing an established paradigm in favor of something newer and better. You might not always choose to make a phone call; after all, sending a text or an email is certainly an easier and less time-consuming way to touch base with someone, and sometimes that’s all you’re trying to do. But if you want to make sure they’re paying attention to you and nobody else, texts and emails simply can’t beat a good, old-fashioned phone call.
What’s the point of this quiz? Well, if you happen to be a Young Person, these two questions illustrate the most critical piece of information you need to understand in order to appreciate why your Older, more-experienced colleagues are occasionally resistant to innovation in general and your suggestions in particular. In fact, ‘resistant’ isn’t even the right word to be using, because they’re not actually resisting anything. A lot of times they simply don’t see the purpose of changing the way they’re doing things.
Why? Because the way they’ve always done things them has generally worked.
Shocking as this may be, your Older and more-experienced colleagues actually do know what they’re doing. They know what they’re doing so well, in fact, that they were able to create a company profitable and sustainable enough to need to hire Young People like yourselves in order to keep things going. If your team or department or company is currently successful, then that success is the result of current practices and processes. I realize this might be a difficult pill to swallow, especially if you’re of the mindset that certain changes need to occur soon in order for you to stay competitive. It’s very possible that you’re correct, and we’ll be addressing those concerns in a few pages.
But for now, it’s essential to understand that whatever practices and processes your company is currently doing are the best and most highly-evolved practices and processes that anyone who has ever worked there has ever been able to come up with. It’s not simply that whatever you’re doing right now works; it’s that it works better than anything else that has ever been tried.
In fact, look at the top ten companies in the Fortune 500 for 2014 – Wal-Mart, Exxon, Chevron, Berkshire Hathaway, Apple, Phillips 66, General Motors, Ford Motor, General Electric, and Valero Energy. None of these companies achieved their market dominance because of their vibrant social media presence. Many of them are selling substantially the same products and services they were a decade ago. With the exception of Apple, none of them generates the majority of its income by bringing disruptive products to the consumer market. By and large, these are not the companies whose flashy CEOs and sexy gadgets monopolize the attention of business columnists and tech bloggers. Some of their employees still use cathode-ray monitors and dot matrix printers, just like cavepeople used to. And yet every one of these companies is wildly successful. I’m not suggesting Wal-Mart or Exxon or any of the others don’t care about innovation, because they absolutely do. But they certainly don’t care about every innovation, or innovation for its own sake.
However, while every motivated professional understands the importance of innovation, Older workers have a much deeper appreciation of the value of existing practices and processes, if for no other reason than because they’ve been around long enough to see the benefits of those systems. If you’re a Young Person, it’s important for you to understand that your Older or more-experienced colleagues don’t have a problem with new ideas. They’ve been incorporating new ideas into their working model for their entire careers. What they do have a problem with is any implication that their current practices and processes aren’t successful when the reality of your business says otherwise. If your business is doing well, then it is precisely because of all those old, boring, unoriginal, stodgy, pedestrian things your colleagues have been doing for the past few years.
You’ve almost certainly heard a colleague complain about a proposed change with the change-averse mantra of the resistant Luddite: “That’s not how we’ve always done things.” But if you unpack that statement you’ll find that in many cases, the person uttering those words isn’t afraid of change. They’re not necessarily saying, “That’s not how we’ve always done things, so I refuse to consider doing them differently.” A lot of times they’re saying, “That’s not how we’ve always done things, and I haven’t noticed any major problems, so why am I being asked to change something that seems to be working just fine?” Like everyone, these people want to know why they’re being asked to consider a new idea. If you can’t provide a compelling argument for the need to innovate, then it’s very possible that the ‘innovation’ you’re touting isn’t as critical or promising as you’d like it to be.
This is an excerpt from my newest book US vs. THEM! which is available here.