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Reframing “It’s how we’ve always done things”

We find ourselves in a very unique time in the world – we desperately want to return back to the way things were, but are confronted with what seems to be a “new normal”. In a time when there is still so much uncertainty, it is difficult to know how to move forward. Organizations are finding that they are stuck between “going back to the grind” or reinventing the way that they have always done things. 

“It’s how we’ve always done things”, is a phrase that receives a lot of criticism. Many people believe that this response to change or newness can result in organizations that are cumbersome, slow, inefficient, and stuck. This is of concern, particularly right now, because there is an increasing rate of change in the world around us and organizations have to find ways to keep up and to stay relevant. 

Now, this attitude can stem from carelessness, fear or unwillingness, and ignorance. When groups resist the process of change, they may miss new opportunities to stay competitive or to increase their impact. One of the most interesting examples of this is the case study of Kodak, a technology company that once dominated the photographic film market. In 1975, one of their engineers actually created the first digital camera. Kodak had the opportunity to lead the digital revolution, but was so focused on the success of film that they refused to launch this new product. They were ultimately too late to the digital party and suffered in the market because of it. And Kodak isn’t the only company to fall into this trap – we can look at companies like MySpace, Blockbuster and Sears as other cautionary tales of the belief, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. 

But this attitude can also come from realizing that we don’t always need to be reinventing the wheel. Personally, I’m a big fan of “how I have always done things” and that’s because I know what works for me. For example, I just started working for a new company and have been in a constant state of flux and change as I transition into my new role. Through this time I am learning new protocols, procedures, and ways of doing things, but have also been encouraged to make these things my own. And that’s because my team recognizes the value in doing what works for you. And as a result, I will be more organized, efficient, and creative when I am able to use systems, resources, and tools that are more familiar to me. 

“The way we have always done things” is a true balancing act. As leaders, we need to be open to change, encourage creative thinking, and be willing to try new things regardless of our history and habits. However, we also need to recognize the strength and value-added that can come from what we have established as tried-and-true. It can be difficult to know when to take the leap into the unknown, luckily there are a number of research-based practices and strategies that can help us to better navigate our ever-changing organizational landscapes: 

Not All Resistance Is Bad

First, it’s important to recognize that not all types of resistance to change are inherently bad! Of course resistance can be based on sound and logical questions or concerns. Resistance in any form should be an important signal to leadership to pause and explore the attitudes and climate surrounding proposed changes. This is a time to ask questions, not give answers. If we use “it’s how we’ve always done it” as an example, we might ask questions like:

  • “Why do you think we have stayed committed to this process?”
  • “What are the benefits of continuing to work in this way? What are the limitations?” 
  • “What are your biggest concerns about making a change?” 

Listening first allows us to pinpoint the true root of the resistance or hesitance surrounding change. 

The Heart of Change

John Kotter, one of the most well-known voices on the topics of leadership and change, emphasizes the importance of winning over “the hearts and minds” of people through the potential for change. Fear or resistance can’t just be explained away. Change is an emotional process for a team and when leaders can consider the emotions, or “heart”, of their change endeavors they are better able to prepare and guide individuals through the change process. What can this look like? 

  • A lot of times, people just want to be included and involved in the change process. Open up change conversations to include and engage more people in brainstorming and decision making. 
  • People need support through change. Leaders and change makers need to be prepared to support their people through changes that cause anxiety or uncertainty. Discussions, resources, and training can help to facilitate this process.
  • Repair issues of trust. If there is a lack of trust between group members, then there is a much greater likelihood for resistance. It’s important that these ruptures in trust are addressed and repaired before asking group members to buy-in to anything new. 

By recognizing the emotional investment that individuals have in a change, leaders can tap into the knowledge, experience, motivation, and commitment of their team members to make sure that proposed changes benefit all parties involved. 

Foster a Growth Mindset

For organizations that are truly stuck in the way things have always been – they have adopted what practitioners call “a fixed mindset”. Supporting a growth mindset and continuous learning for team members can help establish new attitudes and behaviors around change and innovation. A few ways that we can foster this kind of thinking include:

  • Encourage reasonable risk-taking. This means eliminating fear of failure. Many times teams have built in norms or consequences that discourage trying new things or taking risks. Make sure to break down any of these barriers for your group.
  • Establish a healthy culture around feedback that allows participants to learn and grow from each other. 
  • Encourage continuous learning. Offer formal or informal opportunities for your team members to pursue ideas and projects that they are personally interested in. Promoting and integrating learning into your teams every day operations can normalize things like inquiry, experimentation, and critical thinking. 

A mindset that is centered on growth gives our teams an enhanced capacity to learn, adapt, and change. 

We are in a tumultuous time and there is certainly not a road map or handbook on how to best move forward, but hopefully these strategies can help groups and organizations have healthier relationships with the changes they may face. There will be chances for things to go back to the way they were, but we will also be faced with opportunities to evolve. By taking advantage of these opportunities, we will be able to continue to learn as leaders and organizations and continue to make an impact on the world in our own ways.

Does your team need a new way to look at “how you’ve always done things?” Contact us today to inquire about a team development session!

*Meet the Author*


Caelan Cooney got her start in leadership as a high school DECA student and went on to graduate from Chapman University with degrees in Business Management and Integrated Educational Studies. Today, she is the Director of Client Services for The Leets Consortium and is also pursuing Masters in Industrial Organizational Psychology from Colorado State University. As a regular contributor to From the Balcony, her favorite topics to explore are personality theory, group development, and conflict management. In her free time, she enjoys hiking, rock climbing, and listening to podcasts.

Favorite Quote: “I am still learning” – Michelangelo

Fun Facts: 1) I once bought a goat on Craigslist 2) I am afraid of escalators 3) My life goal is to give a TedTalk