I was reading Clay Shirky’s interesting analysis of the healthcare.gov problems when I came across a word I had never seen: deontic.

Following the advice of teachers everywhere, I looked it up to see how Shirky was using it, and I immediately fell in love.  It refers to the feeling of duty or obligation as ethical concepts, and to me it the essence of a huge problem in organizations today.

But this post isn’t a lesson in vocabulary.  This post is about the legitimate issue that plagues too many organizations today, and that is the attitude of “We’ve Always Done It That Way.”  Ugh.  Even writing those words make me feel a bit queasy.

Let’s get this out of the way:  “We’ve Always Done It That Way” is NEVER, NEVER, NEVER, ever a good reason for taking some action or performing some process at work (or at home, for that matter).

Is that clear enough?

That’s why I loved Shirky’s use of the word deontic—isn’t that at its heart what “WADITW” is saying?  That we feel ethically correct when we take an action or follow some plan that’s in place at our organization?  I’ve seen it time and again when working on projects—either the client insists this or that should be done because (ugh) WADITW, or on the other side where consultants don’t take into consideration the unique traits of the organizations and say “that’s how we execute this kind of project all the time.”

And while I may be stretching Shirky’s use of deontic and my connection, it was a great reminder that we don’t always have to do something just because it’s already in place!

I’m not saying there isn’t value in experience, or things that are tried-and-true.  Not at all.  But as a change management practitioner I’m usually dealing with organizations that already know things need to be different in some way, and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been told, even in the midst of such an interaction, that WADITW should be the credo to follow.  Change is hard, yes, but it is needed and worth the effort.

So how do you combat the dreaded WADITW?  Here are four easy tips to help drive this evil out of your organization:

  1.  First, if anybody within three feet says WADITW, you should consider tackling them.  Hard.
  2. OK, I’m just kidding.  But seriously, if anybody utters that stifling phrase, call them out on it and repeat the sentence I wrote above that includes the word “never” three times.
  3. When in meetings, planning sessions, brainstorming exercises, etc., you should APPOINT a Devil’s Advocate.  Why do you need to appoint one?  Because if you give that responsibility to a person in front of everyone else, that eliminates the personal nature of it.  He/she can offer resistance and/or alternatives without offending those who suggested them because for that meeting, it’s just their job.  (This is a good tip in general, but is great to fight WADITW)
  4. Have a “process-cleaning” party.  Pick a slower week/month for your organization (maybe right around now?) and declare that it will be the annual time to reevaluate all processes and procedures, and of course add that WADITW is NOT an acceptable answer to approve a process for another year.  A little housecleaning, if you will.  I’ve seen this in action and it’s truly effective.

I get it—nobody has the time to review and re-review every single thing they have to do every day.  But if you make the Devil’s Advocate appointment a regular presence in your meetings, and choose even just one day a year to thoughtfully reconsider your processes, you’ll be the better for it!

Who else has some tips for fighting the evil WADITW?  Share it with everyone in the comments below!


Michael Reardon is Senior Change Management Consultant for Blackbaud with more than 15 years experience in organizational communication, virtual work, and corporate identification. Prior to joining the Blackbaud team, Michael worked as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication at the College of Charleston where he was honored with Faculty of the Year awards in 2009-2010 as well as in 2010-2011. He is also an active volunteer in his community, having focused much of his volunteer work on literacy and communication through an adult reading academy and participating as a “reading buddy” for a group of underprivileged 6-7 year olds. Self-described as an exceptional driver of minivans (and sometimes golf balls), Michael is the proud father to four children.

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