Thursday, September 19, 2013

Appreciating Change

Story Time

When I was getting my degree in business, I learned of a science experiment that I’m sure is fictitious. I’ve heard variations on the story, but this is how I remember it:

Take five monkeys and put them in a cage. There is food and living necessities, but there is also a ladder that leads to a basket of fruit at the top of the cage. After the monkeys settle into the cage they are going to notice the fruit and attempt to climb up to it. When they do, spray that monkey with cold water from a hose AND spray the other four monkeys. Do this every time a monkey makes a mad dash for the fruit. Soon, all five monkeys learn that everybody pays the price of getting cold, wet, and uncomfortable any time another monkey tried to use the ladder.

At this point, you can take the hose out of the equation.

After this, take one of the monkeys and replace him/her with a fresh new monkey (let’s just assume all the monkeys are male). Within minutes of scanning his new home, he’s going to see the fruit and start climbing the ladder, wondering how he was fortunate enough to be the first to notice the delicious looking fruit.

Do you spray the monkey? Nope! The other four monkeys will attack the new one, until it also learns to keep his distance from the ladder.

Now replace another one of the original monkeys with a new monkey, and you’ll find that the same thing happens. The new monkey starts to climb the ladder and the other monkeys attack, including the one that had never even been sprayed with cold water. Interestingly, he’s the most enthusiastic of the bunch, grateful to no longer be on the receiving end of these beatings.

One by one, replace the other three monkeys until you have five monkeys that have never been sprayed, yet refuse to go for the fruit in fear they’ll all pay the price.

The story goes that while the fifth newcomer is getting monkeysmacked around, one of the monkeys turn to another and says, “Hey, why do we beat up anybody who tries to climb the ladder?”

The second monkey just says, “I dunno. It’s just the way we’ve always done it around here.”

Then my instructor deadpanned, “And that, my students, is how corporate culture gets established.”


My professor encouraged us to look at everything we do and question, “Hey, why do we do this?” If the answer is the same as the monkey’s, “Beats me, that’s how it’s always been done,” then you could be sitting on an excellent opportunity for change.

I worked for a company where you had to hand in your timecards two days before the end of the workweek. This obviously caused problems, because illness and other unforeseeable events often necessitated changing it after the fact. When a newcomer asked why we did this, especially since they didn’t start processing the timecards until THREE days after we turned them in, it turned out it was a holdover from a former employee who demanded it in case a surprise ended up in HER schedule. The process was changed and it saved time because it negated the need to adjust it later.

I know, it’s so simple, but don’t laugh too much. We all do weird things just because it is the way everyone’s always done it.

Take typing for example. Why do 99% of us type on the QWERTY keyboard? After all, it was actually designed to slow down typing speed. I’ve got a friend who questioned this and decided to learn the Dvorak keyboard. His typing speed went from 80 words per minute to 120! If you spend most of your day typing, imaging your productivity level if you could do it all 50% faster.

Speaking of keyboards, here’s a post a couple of years ago where I learned I was using the spacebar wrong for decades. Never questioning, only assuming that everybody did it this way.

And there are traditions we continue because most people don't question them.

We make resolutions every January 1st. What, you can’t decide to improve your life in the middle of September? Go ahead. Try it. You aren’t breaking any laws. Making life changes are more effective when you get prompted and motivated instead of waiting after Christmas and settling on, “Oh, I could lose a few pounds. Let’s join a gym at the most expensive time to do it!”

How often should you change your oil? If you said either 3,000 or 5,000 miles, you are most likely wrong. Have you looked at your owner’s manual? New cars can go multitudes of that without an oil change. Last time I changed my oil, my dealership said, “See ya’ in 10,000 miles.” That’s one maintenance that costs me a third of my time and money now.

A year ago, I asked somebody why she commuted to work a certain way. “I don’t know, I’ve been
going this route for nearly 8 years.” I encouraged her to try another route because a few new roads have opened up since she got her job. Ever since, she saves five minutes of driving each direction. That’s ten minutes of her life she gets back every time she goes to work. That’s nearly 2,500 minutes saved every year. And since she changes her oil every 3,000 miles, she can now go another week or so between oil changes.

Can anybody make a suitable argument for learning cursive, especially in this day of (albeit QWERTY) keyboards and printers? In college, most of my professors wouldn’t accept homework in cursive. Imagine if we spent that class time learning something else instead. I’d be surprised if somebody actually said that learning cursive is more important than getting a little bit further in math, science, and reading comprehension. Have you seen kids with their status updates on social media sites? I’d love to see a few more spelling lessons!

Did you have a best man at your wedding? Did you know that it’s a tradition where the groom had his strongest muscleman by his side to enforce the marriage if the bride got cold feet?

We shake hands as a way to show we aren’t carrying a sword, yet people are more likely to die from
the germs that are spread than a surprise beheading. I envy the oriental customs of bowing. I’m starting to fist-bump people more often now, I guess that’s better than a handshake from a germ perspective. Right? Well, baby steps.

And don’t get me started on daylights saving time.

What Should I Do About It?

We all do some weird things without questioning it.

Well, question it!

Think outside the box. You might learn something new if there is a valid reason a process should remain unchanged. Most likely, you’ll find a way to improve a process. Talk to others about it. Some of my best group brainstorming experiences started with, “Hey, why…..?”

Do this at work, at home, and in any organization you are a part of and you’ll start making your life easier, save money, and find extra nuggets of time to do the things you enjoy.

Unrelated note: If you’re ever thrown into a cage with some rough-looking characters, a ladder, and a basket of fruit at the top, I’d probably start asking a few questions.

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