When I first learnt to drive I struggled. The process seemed impossibly complicated and for some reason my coordination continually failed me. For a long time I had the tendency to, when my patient instructor even mouthed the word “brake”, stamp down hard on the pedal with my left foot. That’s right, my left foot. I don’t know why, I just automatically used my left rather than switching my right foot off the accelerator, which felt clunky and slow. One week, more out of curiosity than anything else, I asked my instructor why I had to brake with my right, since I obviously preferred my left (perhaps I was even a little hurt — wasn’t my left foot good enough to stop his car?!). He explained that that was just how it was done — or how it was taught anyway.
It’s easy for ways of doing things, ways of working and behaving, to become embedded and institutionalised. Zucker (1977) gives an entertaining analogy to describe this insipid process. It goes something like this:
Take 5 monkeys and put them in a cage (by the way, no animals were harmed in the making of this entirely fictional story). Next, put up a stepladder and hang a banana from the ceiling above it. One of the monkeys likes the look of the banana and climbs up the ladder to get it but, while it is climbing, spray cold water on all of the monkeys so it doesn’t grab the banana (the poor thing).
Then replace one of the monkeys. The new monkey wanders in and spots a delicious-looking banana hanging from the ceiling and…wow…there’s a stepladder just beneath it. So as this new monkey starts to climb the stepladder the rest of the monkeys, having spotted what’s about to happen and remembering the horrible water spray, grab the innocent fellow down and tell him off. Although the new monkey doesn’t really know why it happened, it doesn’t go for the banana again.
Then, once more, replace an existing monkey with a new monkey. The monkey that was told off still doesn’t know why, but he joins in when the others stop the new monkey trying to get the banana. This process continues until there is a completely new set of monkeys in the cage and, as if out of nowhere, all the monkeys don’t bother going for the banana because “that’s just how it’s done”.
Behaving according to knowledge or practice that has been merely passed down, in any environment, is dangerous because it doesn’t leave space for creative wriggle-room. If the monkeys had challenged the embedded way of acting within the cage they may have learnt that the water soaking was only a one-off event. They could’ve had themselves a lovely banana (and most probably fought over it but that’s besides the point).
I feel like we need a real-world example though. In Victorian London it was accepted that when people got a disease it was because of having breathed bad air. Why was this? People made ‘common sense’ assumptions based on what they saw. And they really didn’t see things clearly. No, literally, the air was polluted — grey and smog-filled. Unfortunately, people had been putting two and two together like this for hundreds of years. The method by which they diagnosed and investigated disease was rudimentary. A physician John Snow then came along who didn’t completely trust the “bad air” theory. He set about disproving the theory by mapping every single cholera death in London and connected them to certain water supplies contaminated with sewage. Despite this monumental discovery it still took years to be accepted. The public, physicians and officials were unwilling to challenge the normal way they thought about disease (the state of the air looked much more dangerous than the relatively clear drinking water). Nevertheless John Snow’s theory, when it was finally believed, saved an incredible number of lives.
What is there that isn’t being done now because of a lack of creative wriggle-room? What innovative and disruptive solutions to problems have we not found yet because of this attachment we have to the “it’s just how it’s done” approach? Yes it’s easier to remain the same, not to challenge or be curious or to test our methods continually. You can’t help thinking that, like John Snow’s monumental discovery, there might be significant breakthroughs not happening right now because of an institutionalised failure to think innovatively, and a lack of encouragement to do so.
Ps. Michael Schumacher brakes with his left foot. Maybe I should have stuck at it?!