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March 3, 2011

Don’t make decisions based on culture (alone)

In any organization, it is frequent to have a set way to make decisions, call it culture. That can be useful, but it can also be problematical. You should learn to recognize when it is to your advantage to reject the culturally accepted way to approach problems.

Reject the “that’s the way we’ve always done it”

Put five monkeys in a cage. Hang a banana from the ceiling and place a ladder underneath it. Pretty quickly, one of the monkeys will climb the ladder to grab the banana. As soon as he starts to climb, spray him and the other four with cold water.

Repeat the operation when a second monkey tries to climb the ladder and, indeed, until they all learn the consequence of going for the banana. Soon, they won’t try to climb anymore.

Then, replace one of them with a new one that knows nothing about the cold water business. The new monkey sees the banana and tries to climb the ladder. However, the other four, knowing the consequences, jump on the new one and beat him up. The new monkey might not know why, but he has learned that he shouldn’t climb.

Then, substitute another of the original monkeys with a new comer. The new fellow sees the banana, tries to reach it but, the other four—including the one that hasn’t seen any water—beat him up.

Repeat the operation twice more until you’ve removed all the original monkeys. Introduce a new fellow and watch: even though none of the monkeys have seen any water, they will all happily “explain” to the new comer that he shouldn’t go for the banana. Why? Because that’s the way we’ve always done it.

Probe deeper for a good reason

Your decision-making process should be specific to each situation. Think of the preflight checks that an airline pilot does: you don’t want this guy to become creative and decide to invent a new procedure on the spot, at the risk of forgetting a critical component. In this situation, you want him to follow the way he’s always done it.

But here is the catch: you don’t want him to follow the procedure because that’s the one pilots have always followed; you want him to follow it because it works. It is because it works that they always follow it.

What I’m trying to say is don’t follow a rule just simply because that it is the culture to do so; instead, probe deeper to see if there is a good reason to perpetuate the culture. “That’s the way we’ve always done it”, by itself, is always a poor justification for a decision-making procedure. Sometime it relies on good reasons and you’ll be fine; sometimes it doesn’t and you’ll pay the consequences. But the only way you can find out is by asking why or probing deeper.

In the case of the airline pilot, there might be one good reason that explains why the way they always do it works: the current checklist covers all the critical parts that he needs to review preflight. In the case of the five monkeys, there isn’t: now they might just be able to climb the ladder and get the banana without getting a cold shower but they won’t know it unless they probe deeper.

If there isn’t a good reason, change the culture

As you probe for a good reason and find none, you’ll have to modify the culture: if you’re the newly arrived monkey in the cage and have asked why nobody has climbed the ladder and haven’t received any better answer than the cultural excuse, you’re still facing a significant challenge: convincing the others to not beat you up as you climb up.

So be prepared to listen/influence and compromise.

Listen/influence Whether someone follows a set way to do things for a good reason or for a bad one is irrelevant: if you’re the newcomer who exposes their lack of critical thinking, you’ll probably be branded as the arrogant new kid and polarize everyone… against you. Usually, that’s not exactly helping. Instead, you’ll want your friends to come to your conclusion by themselves—or, at least, have them feel that they got there by themselves. That requires listening to them, understanding their motives, and helping them understand their motives. In a word, become a facilitator.

Compromise “So let us get this straight: you’re asking us to let you get that banana without beating you up, thereby rejecting our cultural heritage and a value basis we hold true and abide to with faith at the risk of jeopardizing our mental healthiness and the very social fabric on which this community relies?”, go the other monkeys, “What’s in it for us?”

That’s a tough conversation to have if you’re not ready to give something back to your friends. After all, they’re also taking a risk so they should get part of the reward. So be ready to divide the banana in five. You might argue that you deserve a bigger part because it was your idea, but don’t expect to get the whole thing. Still, 1/5 of a banana is better than no banana, right? Besides, you’re helping your community transcend its culture: you’re showing leadership. That’s got to bring some gratification.