History is Educational. Not Prescriptive!

My first client as a consultant was an electricity cooperative in a sleepy “little” town in North Texas - the kind of place where people stay a long time and eat at the same taco place every Tuesday (Rosa's... YUM!). The project was a great first gig right out of school -  nice people at the client, awesome project team AND an approachable, mentoring project leadership team (I now know that combination is quite elusive). I learned more in the first six months than in all of B-school - about being a consultant, setting expectations, leadership, taking initiative and, sadly, the show Lost (why did everyone love that show so much?! Magic, time travel, the hatch? I still don’t get it.).

There were multiple projects in flight at the client when I joined the team. I was put on a project that was, at it’s core, about technology. We were replacing their paper-based ticketing system for the client’s technicians in the field. For example, when a meter was not reading correctly or it was tampered with, it needed to be replaced by someone with more expertise than a meter reader. Tickets for these types of incidents were generated at the corporate office (which all the engineers drove to from all over North Texas every morning), distributed to the techs and then worked by the appropriate tech back in the field, largely based on geography. The techs would work their tickets, complete them, and then drive back to corporate HQ to turn in their tickets (hopefully, you are starting to see the inefficiencies!). What I quickly realized is that we weren’t doing a technology project - we were helping the client transform their thinking.

The interesting part was not with the technicians (they were generally reluctant to adopt new technology, but were curious enough about the tablets that they were engaged), but with the supporting departments. Most notably was the Billing department - their process was painfully manual - typing in comments and readings on multiple screens. When I was documenting the process I asked why it was entered and re-entered (the same information on multiple screens) and I got the infamous line, “We’ve always done it this way…"

Author’s Note: In my consulting career I have led numerous transformation efforts. One thing I have learned to listen for - especially when digging to figure out where the real issues are - is the phrase, “We’ve always done it this way…” Now, this can have various meanings, but generally its, “No one really knows why we do it this way, but we do and we always have and there is no way we could ever, ever do it differently. EVER!"

After completing the current state document, we moved on to designing the future state (to support the new tablets and their integration with the billing system). Obviously, one of the opportunities for improvement was the processes within Billing. I met one-on-one with the Director of Billing and she wasn’t excited about me “messing up” her department. As we continued the conversation - I was explaining the benefits of the changes: no longer entering things on multiple screens, auto filling in comments from the tablets, pushing meter readings automatically... It was basically utopia! Her response, well, not so much:

“I have children older than you! What do you know about running a billing department!?”

After I pulled my chin up off the desk (I was early in my career and hadn’t developed a great “ARE YOU FREAKING KIDDING ME!!” poker face), I simply asked her to explain to me why this wasn’t good for her and her department. “Well,” she replied, “that’s just not how we do things here!"

Wow. Just… Wow.

Four Simple Steps to Learn from the Past, Not Repeat it.

1. Don’t Be Afraid to Fail.

The number one driver of the status quo is comfort. Period. People don’t even look for ways to improve (RE: Change) because they’ve “always done it this way”… The comfort that one draws from knowing how things are done creates an impenetrable armor of FEAR. Fear of the unknown. Fear of failure. If you want to stop repeating the past - you have to confront the possibility of failure.

Teach yourself to be comfortable with ambiguity and the unknown. PRACTICE! Start with small things with low risk (letting your significant other choose where to eat, cook a new recipe, wear a new shirt color!) to learn to cope with your discomfort. The reality is, failure is simply a step forward towards success. Don’t fear it. Embrace it.

2. Ask “Why” - Early & Often

Yes, we get incredibly frustrated when two and three year olds ask “why” about EVERYTHING. Their innate sense of curiosity is insane! However, the thirst for knowledge and understanding is something we should re-learn. Sinek challenges us to Start With Why and Sakichi Toyoda implored us to ask why FIVE TIMES! Yet, we are so comfortable with nodding our heads and just doing it the way it's always been done.

If you are intentional about discussing why with your people, you teach them that it’s better to understand and learn from the past rather than repeat it.

3. Never Stop Learning!

Einstein was famous for saying, “Once you stop learning, you start dying.” Frankly, I couldn’t agree more. Each day you have experiences. From positive to negative, the outcomes impact you in a certain way. YOU CAN LEARN FROM THESE EXPERIENCES! No matter how much control you think you have in a situation, you absolutely have complete control over your reaction and what you can learn. Decide today - this moment - that you are going to stop looking at an experience as a reason to bitch and moan at the world and you are going to start looking at them as an opportunity to learn.

4. Surround Yourself with People that Think Differently.

We like to be around people that are like us - think the same, were raised the same and love the New England Patriots (FREE TOM BRADY!). However, if you want to achieve high performance and do things that have NEVER been done in your organization (or on your team) - you must surround yourself with smart people that see the world differently. Someone a lot smarter than me once (I’m clearly on an Einstein kick) said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” Step outside your comfort zone and bring in people that will challenge you by thinking differently (and ask hard questions!).


History is educational. Not prescriptive. Stop thinking you can only do things the way they’ve been done and you will go places and do things you never thought possible!