Rotaries and roundabouts and circling toward change

There is a new rotary in my town. For those of you not from New England, other terms for them include roundabouts and traffic circles. This new interchange has been built where two major roads came together in a formation that was somewhere between a Y and a T, which was regulated by yield signs. There have been some bad accidents, and I personally am very happy for the change, especially since multiple studies have shown they improve safety. However, a lot of other people in town have been complaining. Admittedly, the disruption caused by construction has been a headache, but most of the complaints are not about the temporary disturbance, but rather about perceived long-term ills—the rotary will make traffic worse, it will increase accidents, and generally have a negative impact.

Why is there so much grumbling and worry, when construction is not even finished? Change is hard. In fact, change is so hard  that we tend to forget that change has happened before. Anyone who has read The Invention of Tradition is familiar with the fact that Scottish tartans only developed a couple of hundred years ago, and that many African traditions were developed by European colonizers. Even traditions that really are ancient are not locked in stone. I recently read an article pointing out that yoga, an ancient practice, has in fact changed a great deal, at least in terms of how it is taught and practiced in the United States since it was introduced in the 19th century and popularized in the 20th. The author’s key point that “one of the most common errors people make in daily conversation is to appeal to antiquity – what scholars call the “argumentum ad antiquitatem” fallacy – which says that something is good simply because it is old, and because it has always been done this way.” 

While a change in a driving route in a small town may not be on the same scale as a ritual practice, it too is an example of the persistence of the known, and the human tendency to couch what is familiar and comfortable into a story of something has always been done. This paradigm extends beyond our personal lives and can business practice as well. While start-ups may have a mantra of moving fast and breaking things, even businesses that have not been around for very long can easily fall into the trap of routine.

Simply pointing out the routine, or even showing its origin story may be a myth is generally not enough to shift behavior, nor should it be. While many practices start simply because they are expedient, often there is a good reason why a routine developed. Either way, since people do fall into habits and the comfort of familiarity, it is important to understand the origin, and to explore whether the initial reason is still valid and whether or not there are better approaches based on current goals. While there is no single approach or panacea, here is a set of starter questions to help uncover, and if appropriate, move beyond “argumentum ad antiquitatem.”

1. What is “the thing” that has “always been done this way?” Sometimes the label becomes a tent over a broad range of activities, and it can be important to find the foundation on which everything else is affixed. Is the entrenched item a process, a business model, or something else? Identifying this can help frame the conversation and uncover what individuals are truly concerned about.

2. What is the history behind it? Understanding origin stories, even ones that may have evolved into unverified legend, sheds light on what advantages something originally brought. From there, it is possible to assess whether those conditions still hold.

3. Are those original advantages still a high priority? Even if there is still value, is the lack of change preventing forward movement on something that could be higher value based on current conditions. It is worth questioning whether overall strategy and goals are the same.

4. What else is high priority, and what is needed to make that happen? This is the time to start with a clean whiteboard, and work out what would be ideal without being constrained by the current way of doing things. Jarrett Walker does this when designing new bus routes for cities.

5. Once those new ideas have emerged, take the time to assess their respective advantages and disadvantages, in both the short and long term. Short term disadvantages, (torn up roads) can be outweighed by long term advantages (like reduced accidents).

6. What are the barriers to doing it a new way? Barriers come in many forms, including cost, time, technology, and individual resistance.

7. What are ways to remove the barriers? Some barriers may be managed more easily than others, so it is important to separate the issues. Helping stakeholders see direct benefits from change takes a different approach than remediating costs. This may also be the time for more ideation, in order to avoid some barriers altogether.

None of these are easy fixes, but few changes are easy. Asking questions begins the process, and will lead to more questions that lead through processes of change. And understanding people, and the reasons they may want or resist change, is fundamental to working through the steps of why people do things the way they do.