Four Tips to End “We’ve Always Done It That Way” | npENGAGE

Four Tips to End “We’ve Always Done It That Way”

By on Feb 5, 2014


I was reading Clay Shirky’s interesting analysis of the 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 mentality 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, Ph.D., is the Senior Principal consultant for the Customer Success Services team at Blackbaud where he leads the change management practice and has more than 20 years of experience in organizational communication, change management, 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 first graders. Self-described as an exceptional driver of minivans (and sometimes golf balls), Michael and his wife are the proud parents to four children.

Comments (10)

  • Karen Warner says:

    WADITW really means, “We can’t remember why we started doing it this way. There was some good reason in the past, but we’ve forgotten. But we DO know that this way works for us, at least so far. Give us a good reason to change. Or, give me a minute to ask around and maybe somebody will remember why.” Procedures don’t come out of a vacuum; they are the results of something that happened in the past, and they have been working, at least to some degree, since.

    • Mike Reardon says:

      Yep, totally agree Karen, thanks for the comment. Sometimes a compelling event has us rethink processes or procedures–new technology, new leadership, etc.–and it forces us to try to remember the reasons why. But anytime we can check in without the special event can also be worthwhile.

  • Carolynn Tribby says:

    I could not possibly agree more with this article! I love the devil’s advocate idea even more! Thanks for the great idea.

  • Lynn Klein says:

    I work for a young organization, but lately there have been a lot of managerial changes, and I am going to share this article with the newest “head” of the team. Thank you!!

  • Gretta Paige Bellas says:

    I so agree. That way leads to organizational stagnation. I don’t believe in change for the sake of change, but evaluation is the key to success.

  • Mike Reardon says:

    Thanks for the comment!

  • Paul says:

    My experience is that in a culture of “WADITW”, there is little to no scope for change. The reason being, it is often a mob mentality rooted in deep wilful ignorance. Any form of change is treated as an act of physical agression and the reaction is quite similar. The other reason is the current leaders and managers built their careers on the existing presupposition that what they have contributed to build is the pinnacle of existence, therefore criticism in any form or shape is lived as an act of war, a defiance to their position. In my company, there is not a single week where we hear “WADITW”, the morale is low, and the turnover through the roof (above 50% p.a.), but the remaining managers are content: they have a comfortable salary and plenty of useless mess to resolve day after day. Oh, and to finish, the WADITW is quite often accompanied by the “you should see in this other department”. Which is quite literally the worst that a manager can say.

  • Ginger says:

    Excellent Michael! I can’t wait to share this with our Super User Community! Super User Networks live the life of battling this. It’s in their charter. So, to answer the call for tips to fight the evil WADITW – an organized and chartered Super User Network.

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