My friend John recently started a new job. He told me that the way people communicate internally was quite unusual — instead of using Slack, they use a combination of personal messengers like WhatsApp. His first thought was, “This is an absolute mess!”
The workflows made no logical sense compared to standard processes in the industry. He immediately wanted to overhaul everything to follow modern practices. “We could be so much more productive in Slack with clear channel organization and automate many things,” he thought. But when he brought his ideas to his manager, Kate, she waved him off.
“Before you change things, you need to understand why this system works the way it does,” she advised.
She explained those odd workflows were the accumulation of many years of the team’s tribal wisdom about their projects and processes. The set of tools reflected the team’s unique personality that evolved over time.
Kate said she had seen previous new hires try to “fix” everything by forcing changes too fast. It always backfired. The team would find workarounds and cling even tighter to their familiar old quirks.
“It’s like renovating an old house,” Kate told John. “You don’t demolish it. You work carefully with what’s already there. Modernize things gradually.”
John realized he’d been too quick to judge the process as broken just because it differed from what he was used to. He needed to appreciate why it looked the way it did before making suggestions for change.
Legacy Systems Encode History
If you live in the US and are really into dog shows, you might know an interesting situation with the American Kennel Club I read about recently in a blog post by Richard Fall.
If you want to name a puppy with some common name, like Bear, you might be surprised when the registration will be rejected. The AKC representative would explain to you that the name Bear is already taken. In fact, 37 other Bear dogs are already registered, and it’s the maximum allowed for that name.
I know, it’s hard to believe. With millions of dogs in the US, how can the limit be so small? You might also wonder why there is a limit to begin with.
Turns out that the AKC uses an antiquated system built ages ago. It can only append Roman numerals up to 37 (XXXVII) because of the limitations that were in place when the software was written initially. So, no more duplicate names were permitted after hitting that cap. The registry’s outdated tech has arbitrarily shaped the naming process over the years, and no one seemed to be bothered with this.
Quirks like that are pretty common for legacy systems. All sorts of odd constraints and workarounds piled up within those aging systems all the time. What once made practical sense now is just quirky restrictions like the 37 dog name limit.
Languages Naturally Diverge in Isolation
It’s even more interesting that this natural process of building up quirks and oddities is common for groups of people in general and is all around us.
I live in a small village in Portugal, close to Lisbon. Portugal is a small country compared to the US, 135 miles wide and 350 miles long. This is roughly the size of the state of Maine. Nonetheless, there are 5 different dialects of Portuguese spoken in the country (excluding Azorean and Maderian dialects because those are islands, and of course, Brazilian Portuguese, which comes from a different continent.)
If you spend most of the time in the Lisbon area and then go south to the rural Alentejo area, you’ll feel that Alentejan Portuguese doesn’t sound like proper Portuguese to you. They use strange phrases and pronounce words in ways that would sound totally wrong to you.
The thing is that the isolated communities organically shape the language to suit their needs and culture. Languages are living things. They bend and change over time naturally, especially in smaller groups. Generation after generation makes the language drift bit by bit, and after hundreds of years, two groups of people living in the same country but isolated by distance speak noticeably different dialects.
Each Team Has Its Own Process
The same thing is noticeable for example with agile project management frameworks, something research and deal with a lot.
If a new manager joins the team and tries to force people to use, say, SAFe instead of what they are used to, he’ll see nothing but frustration.
It’s like trying to shoehorn a bunch of different-sized feet into one pair of shoes. After some time, people will find workarounds. They’ll say they are “doing SAFe,” but in reality, they’ll quietly customize their own hybrid process, reverting to their old ways.
Dictating standardized processes to a team that has already had a process before for a long time fails to acknowledge how uniquely diverse teams are. Like distant regions evolving their own dialects, teams develop quirky but practical norms over time. Allowing that organic evolution is far more effective than enforcing conformity.
Legacy Decisions Shape Team Norms
Another situation that is closely related. When you start a new job, you may be baffled by some odd processes like John was.
You’ll soon learn that a strange communication process arose years ago because most company clients used various instant messengers, and the team had to use them anyway, forwarding the messages back and forth. Over time, it became ingrained into the team’s culture.
Breaking it would require restructuring thousands of existing processes and rituals.
At first, all the quirks seem like bad design. But after a while, you see they contain real institutional wisdom from the team’s history. Puzzling things often persist for good reason if you dig beneath the surface.
The Five Monkeys Experiment
There’s an experiment that shows how the mechanism of institutional wisdom works, where a newbie in a group is getting attacked just for doing something he doesn’t know is off-limits.
At first, anytime a monkey tries climbing a ladder to reach some bananas hanging overhead, it gets blasted by cold water along with his buddies for five minutes. After a few rounds of this, the monkeys learn not to go for the bananas.
Then things get really interesting — the researcher starts replacing each monkey with a new guy who had never gotten the cold shower treatment. Yet anytime the new monkey tries for the bananas, the rest attack him without mercy.
Eventually, none of the original monkeys are left. But despite having no direct experience with the cold water punishment, the replacement monkeys had all learned not to break the rules.
Just like with humans, behaviors and norms can take on a life of their own in a group, even when no one remembers why.
Flexibility Is Key
When you start working with people, whether a manager or an individual contributor, you want to do everything “by the books” to get the best results. But most likely, the team you joined had already developed their own rhythms for years. If you keep pushing standards, your stubbornness will cause frustration and resistance. People will resent you for forcing dogma on them.
Instead, let teams shape processes that work for their reality. Don’t impose your own. Otherwise, it feels like forcing a single language on diverse communities. It crushes morale. You must loosen up and meet people where they are rather than forcing anything. Flexibility will allow the organic evolution that you’re trying to short-circuit.
Originally published on Medium.com