A statement I often hear and that is attributed to a range of business gurus, was apparently first said in 1976 by Grace Hopper: “The most dangerous phrase in the English language is, ‘We’ve always done it this way.’”

The clear implication is that remaining on a given path, simply because you are already on that path, is a recipe for business disaster.

To which I say… maybe. Like most catchphrases, there’s an oversimplification hidden beneath, that while often directionally correct, doesn’t apply in all situations.

Not to say that I am against change. In fact, I recently wrote an article about its importance.

After all, the business landscape is littered with examples of companies — from Digital Equipment, which failed to see the coming personal computer wave, to Kodak, which missed the shift to digital — that failed to adjust to a changing world.

I even had the good (?) fortune to experience this firsthand in the late 1990s on a project for the largest glass-bottle manufacturer in the U.S. Perhaps in part because of its European ownership, they were convinced that the superiority of glass bottles over plastic would endure. Thus, they missed clear signs that the market was changing and that major food groups were shifting to plastic. In the end, their hoped-for growth strategy turned into a plant consolidation strategy.

Change Is Difficult

In hindsight, of course, these now-obvious missteps seem implausible.

But it’s important to remember that change is difficult (humans don’t like it), nearly always comes with a cost, and typically requires a new way of thinking about a problem that may seem to have already been solved or a market that may seem to have already been won.

Further, rushing into change — particularly change for change’s sake — can be just as dangerous as staying put.

For example, early in my career, while operating the in-store bakery division of a supermarket chain, I was pressured to eliminate the production tracking process we used: counting leftover items at the end of the day that were destined for pickup by local food banks. It was a manual process and manual processes were viewed as inherently bad.

The challenge was that our early morning bakers needed to know which products sold well and which did not during the previous day. Our cash register systems were not detailed enough to provide these insights so, as old-fashioned as it seemed, we stayed with the manual process.

Not changing also has value in maintaining consistency in business. Companies spend a lot of time and effort establishing their brand and setting customer expectations. Of course, when these are out of line with where the market is going, it is time to change. The problem is that it is not always all that obvious, even to those who are aware that modifications are called for.

Here, too, examples abound:

  • The Gap’s now infamous rebranding of its logo lasted just six days before the backlash caused them to return to the original logo.
  • Tropicana Orange Juice’s updated logo made it blend in with the generics alongside of it and was also shelved quickly.
  • And let’s not even get started rehashing the disaster that was “New Coke.”

Which Path to Follow?

Given the potential for missteps in either direction, here are some things to consider as you contemplate discarding an established process or brand:

  1. Why are you considering a change? What problem is being caused by the current approach? What benefits might be gained by making modifications?

    A lack of understanding of the reasons behind a change is one of the major causes of failed change efforts.
  2. Why are you considering a change now? Is there a competitive threat on the horizon? Are there significant changes happening in your industry? Has technology presented new opportunities that didn’t exist previously?

    By examining the role of timing, you can further pinpoint both the need for change (if it exists) and the urgency with which you must act.
  3. What are the anticipated costs and risks of change? No course of action is easier, cheaper, or faster to implement than doing nothing.

    So make sure to consider things such as overcoming employee resistance, required staff training, dealing with unhappy customers, other processes that may be impacted as a result, etc. There is always a cost to change.

Reflections

I am not suggesting that “the way we have always done it” is a good justification on its own. But neither is it an argument for making change.

Sometimes there is wisdom in the ways of the past. Just make sure that you do your homework before simply discarding long-standing approaches.

Which brings me to another old adage worth contemplating: Look before you leap!

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