Another side to the story
Another awesome article by Paul Nieuwoudt, Author of one of my favourite articles: Zero Harm and a Peasant in 16th Century Europe. Paul puts a positive spin on an age old issue and I think this may create a good deal of healthy debate and thinking.
What reaction do you have when you hear the words “We have always done it that way?” This statement is often held up as a sure sign of resistance to change. Those using this statement are often considered to be closed-minded, unthinking etc. We often have good reason to be concerned about the apparent lack of thinking behind that statement. Some shortcomings underpinning this statement have been highlighted elsewhere including: We have always done it that way and THE CALF PATH . However, there is another possible side to the story that will sometimes be present.
The statement “we have always done it that way” does not necessarily need to be seen in a negative light. Take for example a situation where we want to consult with staff about a different way of doing things on site – perhaps a way we suspect may be safer. During such consultation we ask for, and encourage the opinions of all staff. However, the opinion of staff who know what they are talking about, the staff who actually do the work, will generally hold more credibility than speculation by those who don’t. Consider what happens when experienced staff say “We have always done it that way”. “We know it works because we have never experienced any related incidents or close-calls in all our years on site”.
What they are really saying is that the existing system is already safe, and they know it’s safe because their combined experience is, in their view, real evidence that it is safe.
Would you agree in the above illustration that the unanimous opinion of experienced staff can be considered to be sound evidence to support their view? Consider:
- People generally believe that on-going problems, incidents or near-misses is a sign that something is not working. Why can’t the opposite hold true? Why can’t the absence of problems or incidents be considered to be a possible sign that the system may actually be working?
- It is true that people can get lucky, but luck can only hold out so long. A bad system can be lucky and run incident-free for a while, but sooner or later their luck will run out. The longer a site runs without an incident, the more likely it becomes that it is due to good processes, people and equipment. If experienced staff can refer to many years of trouble-free or near-miss-free, operation then why can’t such experience hold some credibility?
I suggest that dismissing the statement as unthinking can create a paradox. On the one hand asking for people’s advice based on their knowledge and experience, and on the other hand suggesting that an answer based on their experience is somehow flawed or a sign of a closed mind. How can that be?
So how do we know whether people’s references to past practice reflects an unthinking mind or not? I suggest we will only be able to ascertain the answer to that question when we suspend judgement and delve a bit deeper. Otherwise, the only closed mind may be our own.