Because, that’s the way we’ve always done things around here…

An expression that is usually followed up with something along the lines of… “is the most dangerous thing you’ll hear”. You may have heard it quoted by serious people or even seen it on posters or painted on the walls of more ‘progressive’ organisations.

It’s a powerful statement that has many layers of meaning, but what’s behind it?

I’ll save you a lengthy explanation and suggest you have a look at this video. It’s a clip from The Contender, a film from 2000 about an attempt to appoint the first Female Vice President of the USA. In this clip, which was deleted from the final version, Jeff Bridges who is playing the role of the President is talking to two advisors. In his pajamas as far as I can work out – now that’s very 2020/21!

Clip from The Contender via You Tube

Just so you get the full effect I’ve transcribed the key points of what the President is saying:

  • You’ve got 5 Apes in a cage,
  • You’ve got a banana hanging by a string in the middle of the cage,
  • You’ve got some stairs going to the banana.
  • Now, pretty soon one of those Apes is going to go for the banana.
  • As soon as he hits the stairs,
  • You take a hose and spray all 5 Apes with freezing cold water for 5 minutes.
  • Now, some time passes.
  • And pretty soon another one of the Apes is going to make the same attempt (to get the banana) with the same result; all 5 Apes get sprayed with cold water.
  • Now, you turn off the cold water, you never use it again.
  • Time passes, and one of the Apes goes for the banana,
  • As he hits the stairs, the other 4 Apes pounce on him and beat the crap out of him.
  • OK, understandable.
  • Now, you replace one of those original Apes with a new Ape.
  • After a while that new Ape, well , he’s going to spy that banana.
  • And, when he goes for the stairs, the other 4 Apes are going to jump on him and beat the crap out of him.
  • Time passes and you replace another one of the original Apes with a new Ape, who is going to go for the banana.
  • The other 4 Apes beat the crap out of him, right?
  • Including, the first new Ape who has no idea why he is enthusiastically beating the crap out of this poor new guy.
  • Nor, why he himself had the crap beaten out of him.
  • OK?
  • Now, you keep replacing those original Apes with new Apes until finally you’ve got a cage filled with 5 Apes,
  • Who have NEVER had freezing cold water sprayed on them.
  • And never the less..
  • Not one of those Apes will ever attempt to climb those stairs again.
  • Why not?
  • Because, that’s the way we’ve always done it around here…

You can’t base Human behaviors on what 5 Apes do. There is a bit of controversy around the story of the 5 Apes. Have a look at the comments that Matt from Complex Wales made on a 2015 post I wrote about it , ‘5 Monkeys, Bananas, Ladder, Water. Why do we comply with daft rules in organisations?’

Matt knows about that sort of thing and points out that the story of the 5 Apes developed from a range of primate psychology experiments that stretch back to the 1920’s and up to the 1960’s. They might have been Monkeys, or Apes. It might have been ‘freezing cold water’ or it might have been a blast of air.

What is important to note is that the new Apes were fearful of things that had happened to the original Apes. This was without having experienced those things and not knowing why they were fearful. This changed their behaviour and led them to do things because, “that’s the way we’ve always done it around here.” This might be a metaphor based on some old (slightly dodgy) science, but it makes a lot of sense, to a lot of people. It’s very relatable.

Lessons for the Modern Day Corporate Culture, Change Programme. Here’s a question for anyone involved in any sort of activity that is trying to change the culture of an organisation.

Do you actually understand what contributes to the existing culture? If the people who’s culture you are trying to change don’t know why they themselves do certain things in the first place, how are you going to convince them to do something different? Will the dazzling Vision, route-map and mile-stones help them to overcome the deeply embedded fear of being sprayed with cold water?

Until you’ve understood the deep reasons behind ‘that’s the way we’ve always done it around here’ not much is going to change, even if you replace the old Apes with new ones…

One Final Thing. In the comments on the 2015 post Matt said that the results of the tests were different between the female and male groups of Apes. I’m hoping for an update on that one.

So, What’s the PONT?

  1. ‘The way things are done around here’ is a huge driver of peoples’ behaviour in organisations, communities and families. Its not just about Apes.
  2. The reasons for these ‘behaviours’ can be deeply embedded and go back many years. They aren’t necessarily good or bad, its just the ‘culture’.
  3. Trying to change ‘the way it is’ behaviours isn’t straightforward. It needs deeper understanding than a simple Vision, route-map and milestones.

About WhatsthePONT

I'm from Old South Wales and I'm interested almost everything. Narrowing it down a bit: cooperatives, social enterprises, decent public services, complexity science, The Cynefin Framework, behavioural science and a sustainable future. In 2018/19 I completed a Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship, looking at big cooperative enterprises and social businesses in NE Spain and the USA. You can find out more here:

4 Responses

  1. Philip Parker

    Thanks for the post – interesting. It seems to me that (to quote someone who I can’t recall) organisations are the perfect reflection of themselves, that is “the way things have always been done” reflects what has worked and been successful in the past and got the organisation to where it is in the present moment. We need to reflect on, and respect that history: the current rules will have been refined, debated and honed in the crucible of experience over years and decades. In the Ape story, for example, it could be possible that the original controllers of the situation knew that the bananas are poisonous and the hose is intended to protect the health of the apes. I find it is good to find out the historical reasons for something happening in an organisation – one can then evaluate whether those considerations still apply, or whether the conditions have changed. There are usually long-standing colleagues who can shed light from their institutional memory. A good decision can then be taken.

    1. Philip Parker

      I couldn’t recall who I was quoting. “There is no such thing as a dysfunctional organization, because
      every organization is perfectly aligned to get the results it currently gets”, Leadership on the line: Heifetz and Linsky

  2. The reason I researched the origin of the fable, is solely down to the first time some numptie tried to indoctrinate me into the QI technique known as PDSA (Plan Do Stop Applause). It was marketed like Jesus, as the meaning of life the universe and everything, by people who had absolutely no idea where it came from or why.

    With absolutely no awareness of knowledge action cycles – you do something, you know something, you do something else – nobody seemed to understand what they were peddling or have any perception of the perpetual dance of Sophia and Phronesis, as if the Ancient Greeks had never existed.

    After a few years, people had no idea why they said PDSA and never actually used it, ever. But god forbid, you did anything else and they carried on regardless, in some kind of five monkeys reverse psychology. Rather than not doing something embedded through the kind of instrumental learning the monkeys and your family pet gets, they could not stop doing it, but for exactly the same reason as the poor frightened monkeys. There’s nobody left who can explain why.

    Sadly, the Five Monkeys Affect is more prevalent in organisations, than anyone would care to admit.

  3. […] Not everyone thinks about fences, or why they exist. I’ve been thinking about fences a lot recently. The last post I wrote was about ‘invisible fences’, the things that influence peoples’ behaviour for reasons they don’t understand. Frequently stopping them from doing something; like fences. The practice is often described by the phrase “because, that’s the way we’ve always done things around here…”. […]

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