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Because I’ve Always Done It That Way

Approximately 90% of 3rd and 4th generation businesses fail. Why?

“I’ve always done it that way” is a phrase commonly used by many owners of both small and large businesses. I’m sure you have uttered those same words in response to being questioned as to why you do something a certain way. “I’ve always done it that way” is a great response for when you don’t have the answer and, when spoken firmly enough, the person asking the question accepts this response. Use the phrase often enough and you will begin to believe it yourself.

The reality of that particular response to “why” is a red flag for needed change. What is the basis for the action that provoked the question in the first place? What is the expected outcome of the action? Are the expected outcomes being achieved? Are more or better results desirable or obtainable? Is there another way to achieve the desired outcome?

When questioned about why, you should ask yourself, “why am I?” This should become a question that triggers the process for grasping a full understanding of the process, and the basis for answering the original question of “why.” The answer to each “why am I” question you ask yourself will bring justification to your actions and allow you to understand the “why,” or begin to set the wheels in motion to make a needed change.

As a consultant, I need to ask “why” frequently. I hear the “I’ve always done it that way” response too often, and unfortunately, it is getting in the way of success for many business owners.

Traditions form a box in which a management style evolves. Within the walls of the box, creativity and growth become stifled. Frustrations and stress levels grow, and failure looms as a possible outcome of inaction. Often, tradition is confused with a company’s culture. When asked why, I often get the response, “it’s our culture.” Culture has absolutely nothing to do with the way you do business. A company’s culture is a company’s personality. You can change the way you do business without changing your company’s culture.

How often have you been asked “why” about the way you perform a certain task or a certain function and gave the response, “because I’ve always done it that way?” You might be saying to yourself, “I’ve never said that!” If that is the case, no one asks you “why” often enough. Thus, you need to begin hearing that question more frequently. As a business owner, you should be asking yourself that question often. You need to view your business operations and management methodology from a perspective outside the box you are in. Tradition and habit form walls around you and create a comfort zone that you are operating in, making it, at times, impossible to see beyond.

Another popular excuse I often hear is, “why change if it’s not broken?” How do you know it’s not broken without examining it? Also, when it does break, do you know it’s broken? Or why it broke? Or do you blame tradition for the breakdown?

Humans are creatures of habit who work hard to avoid and resist change. Change can be painful for people; therefore, change is often resisted until it’s forced. We tend to look for the path of least resistance, a quick and easy route between point A and point B. This is not necessarily the correct way, but a traditional way which seems to work—it’s generally the easy way. So, why look for other ways to perform certain tasks if you’ve always done it one particular way? That takes time, and time is valuable. In addition, you already know how to do it one way, so that’s the way you proceed.

If you find your thought process following this pattern, then you need to stop and take a step back—try cutting a window in the box you’ve created for yourself and look outside. Ask yourself “why” and react with “what” questions such as, what am I trying to accomplish? What are my goals and objectives? Is what I’m doing the right way to reach this objective? Is what I’m doing cost-effective? Then, ask yourself a series of “how” questions. How can I do this another way? How can I measure and compare my results?

These are difficult questions to ask yourself, and they can’t be answered in a few minutes or even a few hours. They require days or weeks to research and analyze, but it will be time well spent if the end result brings new efficiency and improved productivity to a process. If a change reduces costs, creates new business opportunities, improves morale or provides some other new tangible benefit, it’s worth the investment in time. The steps followed to find the answers to the questions of “why,” “what” and “how” will provide new insight into the way you’re managing your business. Looking at one function or activity leads to looking at another, and another, and so on. This process analysis leads to a reengineering of functional activities within the business. It will start the paradigm shift for managing outside of a box.

Many times, a box is created based on tradition and habit, especially among second- and third-generation businesses. For example, a father did things his way, and his son wasn’t taught another way, or is afraid to change what has historically been done by his father. Also, the son was most likely shielded by his father and not allowed to be a part of any important activities or be involved in critical decision making but was later forced to assume his father’s role and make his own critical decisions. More than likely, the son is currently trying to fill his father’s shoes in the same manner, relying on past experience rather than examining and analyzing the current situation.

Recently, I worked with a 75-year-old company, a fourth-generation business whose current owner was the great grandson of the founder. His response to many of my questions regarding why certain activities were done a particular way and have not changed in years was, “Who am I to change the way my great grandfather, grandfather and my father did things?” He continued by saying, “For 75 years, it worked fine for them…it should still be fine for me!” But is it?

Approximately 90 percent of third- and fourth-generation businesses succumb to failure. Why is the failure rate so high among these businesses? The answer to that question may have to do with the fact that a great grandfather’s way of operating a company does not work in today’s business climate. Many seem to be aware of this, but are reluctant or afraid to change. The mindset of “who am I to change the way my father did things” has been the ruination for creative management in many a business. A close-minded attitude creates the unwillingness to change from past practices to new practices—practices that can broaden the horizons for greater efficiency, productivity and profitability. Or, in other words, true business success.

Another reason why a business may find itself operating in a box is the owner’s mindset that if the way he or she is currently running the business works and the company is making a nice profit, why change? Complacency is a symptom found cozy, comfortable box. Some individuals may feel as though they are actually successful working and managing in this manner, but are they truly succeeding?

Success is relevant to each individual’s goals and ambitions. Does meeting one’s goals and ambitions define one’s business success rate? What business success means to one person could spell utter failure for another. Is business success measured by income or profit, by notoriety, by quality of life or by some other qualitative measurement? Those who consider themselves successful in business generally feel they’re successful because they can’t see beyond their horizon. They become complacent, comfortable and sometimes lazy. They accept the status quo. I believe some don’t want to see beyond for fear of what will be seen. Who is to say what lies beyond? Do you fear that if you see additional success, you will be deemed a failure for not achieving it? Well, failure is simply not trying in the first place!

Fear is another factor that keeps business owners wrapped up in a box. The business environment and culture is in a constant state of involuntary change. World events, changes in consumer spending and buying trends, inflation, recessions and the technological revolution are just a few of the factors impacting the current business climate in one way or another. For some, these are scary times, challenging times—times that demand creativity and innovation. This is not the time to conduct business the way you always have or to hide behind tradition, complacency or fear.

Barriers built of tradition and complacency must crumble for those who want and expect more and who are ambitious and seek maximum results and success. But breaking from tradition, habit and complacency is not easy. It must also be noted that “change for the sake of change” is also not a healthy step to take. That’s why change shouldn’t be undertaken until a thorough and complete analysis has been completed. Change becomes justified if, and only if, it provides measurable, improved results. Justified change then becomes needed change, a healthy change, with clearly defined purpose, with planned goals and objectives and with a means to measure results. Change is facilitated through creativity, planning and management skill. Change must be supported with a disciplined and functioning organizational structure. Change requires commitment, control, communication and teamwork.

Chuck Noll, former head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers, built his football dynasty by preaching the basics to his players. His coaching philosophy was that to be successful, players need to focus on the basics— tackling and blocking. In business, you must also focus on the basics—structure and organization. These are necessary to creating a management model that supports and promotes innovation and change. Structure brings integrity to an organization through disciplined use of control methods that monitor and measure results. A management model needs to embrace team building, delegation, accountability and communication.

Change can be easy, painless and exciting. Make your first change by answering “why” questions with a sound business response as opposed to, “I’ve always done it that way.”