“The Best You Can Be Is A Perfect Imitation Of Those Who Came Before You”

I am on a committee at Stanford where we are trying to do something new (sorry, I must keep it vague). We’ve been working on the paperwork for a particular job candidate, which led an administrator to urge us to use the same language and process for all past, current, and future hires to “remain consistent across actions so that no one is advantaged or disadvantaged by a change.” You probably hear things like this from administrators where you work too, and such advice is often necessary and noble. Like this Stanford administrator, they are just trying to do their jobs and to maintain a fair and efficient process.

Alas, however, if you dig into the logic for and impact of many such pressures for consistency and conformity, they unwittingly stifle change and innovation. The mindless application of identical and fixed processes and standards is a recipe for stagnation. These dangerous forces remind me of a New Yorker cartoon and a Warren Bennis story that I’ve written about before. Consider this “hats” cartoon. I bought the rights to use it in my old book Weird Ideas That Work, so I can use it here as well.

I love that cartoon because it shows how early precedents that once may (or may not) have made sense become ingrained traditions that are followed year after year — even when they make no sense at all and long after anyone can remember why they were started in the first place. Some traditions and enduring standards make sense. But too many are followed because that is how people have always done it, that is how newcomers are taught to do it, so everyone always does it that way around here, and doing it that way over and over again saves them from having to think about what they do and why very much.

Mindless action is efficient. But it can cause people to do the wrong thing again and again and it can blind them from seeing that some ingrained practice is obsolete or isn’t right for a particular case. And, in too many workplaces, when people try to do something different that makes sense, they are teased, punished, and even expelled. In less punitive workplaces, deviations from old ways may provoke an exhausting onslaught of emails, conversations, critique, arguments with the keepers of tradition. After giving it a whirl or two, people may learn that trying to challenge existing traditions is a waste of time and brands them as a troublemaker and lousy team player. So they give up, go through motions, and grumpily conform to the old broken old ways. And some seek greener pastures.

These troubling forces remind of a conversation I had with the late management guru Warren Bennis some 30 years ago — Bennis is probably most famous for his work on the distinctions between leaders and managers (Here is my old riff on that difference). It happened, as I first wrote some years back, when I was on the academic job market for the first time back in about 1983, I met Bennis at USC. He warned that some of the prestigious schools where I was interviewing were stifling and rigid places because, “The best you can be is a perfect imitation of those who came before you.” As said in my original report, “I thought that was brilliant line, and also a lovely diagnostic test for an organizational culture.”

Constant vigilance is required to avoid creating an organization that mindlessly attracts, hires, and rewards one clone after another (and views all others as “defective”); I have been lucky to spend my career at the Stanford Engineering School, which has a strong track record of hiring people who break from past traditions and of encouraging them to do new things. For example, the remarkable support and encouragement that the School of Engineering gave David Kelley and those of us who followed him to start the Stanford d.school isn’t something that would happen in many universities. Once we succeeded, many universities started similar operations. But back in 2005 or so when it first started, a lot of people thought we were living in a fool’s paradise, that the idea of starting an institute that applied design thinking to problems ranging from products, to experiences, to organizational design, and to focusing on actions rather than theory, just wouldn’t work in a prestigious university. There was certainly some internal resistance to the d.school, but the support we received from former engineering dean Jim Plummer and former university president John Hennessy to pursue unprecedented paths in those early days at Stanford was remarkable.

The upshot is that, no matter how innovative your team or organization has been in the past, the forces toward inertia are strong. It requires relentless thought, questioning, (civilized) argument, and courage to keep challenging the status quo and to ignore or banish old standards are wrong for new challenges. Keep on the lookout for those useless old hats and call out others (and yourself) when they insist that the wrong people wear them at the wrong time. And when when you hire, evaluate, and promote people, remember to ask whether you are bringing in the clones and if that is really the right thing to do.

Stanford Professor who studies organizations. Books include Good Boss Bad Boss, The No Asshole Rule, The Knowing-Doing Gap, and Scaling Up Excellence

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