“This is how we’ve always done it”, Carl exclaimed as he prepared a neatly typed cover page to accompany his facsimiled client applications. Weeks later, he had not received any responses from underwriters, most of whom did not even know where to find facsimiled applications. Pete lost all his business and wound up starting his own buggy whip manufacturing firm called “Carl’s Carriage Companions”. He’s very optimistic.
I know, it’s a pretty ridiculous story. Perhaps a career as a novelist is not in the cards for me. However, what isn’t ridiculous is the prevalence of “Default Settings” in most offices across the country. A default setting, to me, is when an operation or procedure is preset or established and isn’t challenged. Now, to be clear, many default settings become such because they were great ideas at some point. Yet, any office culture that does not promote challenging these ideas may find themselves struggling to find innovation and efficiency.
Today, for the Carl in all of us, I thought I would highlight a few common “warning signs” that default settings are amongst us.
Warning Sign #1: “This is how we’ve always done it”
This statement is a classic marker for potentially terminal default settings. It may seem innocuous enough, even factual, but it can be lethal if not treated. Luckily, the treatment is simple: add the phrase “and here’s why” and then justify it. If it can’t be justified, change it to something that can.
Warning Sign #2: “My boss/parent company makes me do it this way”
The connotation here is that there is, indeed, a better way but your boss/parent absolutely prohibits improvements. If followed by “and I don’t have the energy or gumption to try and fix it”, at least you know you are dealing with and honest person battling default settings AND chronic apathy syndrome. Left untreated, this warning sign can turn into terminal “this is how we’ve always done it”.
Warning Sign #3: “Garbage in, garbage out”
Why would anyone accept a procedure that allows garbage in? This is a default statement that is meant to cover up a lack of concern over quality. If it is ok to allow garbage, discontinue the practice all together. Otherwise, clean it up. Please note, this warning sign does not apply to the waste management industry.
Warning Sign #4: “There must be a better way”
This is a very good opportunity to catch a default setting before it metastasizes. If this warning sign is followed by 20 years of silence and inaction, it will naturally give way to potentially terminal “this is how we’ve always done it”. However, encouraging people to find that better way, and even incentivizing it can turn this warning sign into a very positive action point.
Warning Sign #5: “If I ran (fill in name of company) I would….”
It is a warning sign if you DON’T ever hear that statement. Everyone on your team should be encouraged to contemplate what they would do differently and then, most importantly, feel comfortable sharing that idea. This type of thinking will inoculate the company from default settings.
It is easy to get caught in a rut, where it’s simpler to go through the motions than it is to justify actions and challenge norms. Trust me, I battle it constantly. The key is to have a culture that doesn’t allow that to settle for too long. A culture that encourages ideas from all corners of the offices. A culture that encourages everyone to have their brain engaged. It is easy to talk about, hard to do, but worth the effort.
Now, I’m certain by now you are clamoring for an update on our friend Carl. Well, I don’t have one, it’s a made up story. For fun, I will let you choose your own alternative ending:
- Carl sold 25 whips to Mackinac Island and then went bankrupt.
- Carl timed America’s return to old-fashioned travel methods perfectly and became the first buggy whip manufacturer to eclipse 1 billion in annual sales, before selling out to Westinghouse.
- Carl saw a hypnotist, who convinced him he was really tech savvy. He ended up producing a mobile app/game where players tried to snap flies using a buggy whip. It sold 30 million copies in two months and Carl used his earnings to build the world’s biggest hammock made of buggy whips.
That’s enough fun for now. Happy New Year. Remember, challenge all norms!
by Todd Piersol