Is Your Environment Dumbing You Down?

I was talking with a colleague today who works in knowledge management and organizational development.  He told me an interesting story about when he was helping an organization move from mainframe-based systems to browser-based systems over a decade ago.

The ‘dumb-terminal’ operators had extremely low proficiency in web-browsers since most of them had never used browsers before.  Over the next year they hired people who were rated as having much higher proficiency in using browser-based systems.

Later in the year they measured the proficiency of the new hires and the results were surprising to me.  They actually rated themselves lower in browser proficiency and much closer to the proficiency levels of the people who had been working solely on dumb-terminals.

He explained some of the behaviour behind this to which I’m sure most people can relate.

Operator: “oh, we can’t change that date here.  It just gets messed up so we have to back out of two screens and change it somewhere else.  And, oh, we can’t type in the date, sometimes it just doesn’t save right”

The dreaded workarounds.  I’ve seen this in many places where the culture of the users of the system gets paralyzed by crappy software.  New hires will have energy to try and make changes but in a culture that doesn’t value craftsmanship and competence, they’ll simple become part of the collective because it uses less energy to learn the workarounds and deal with them than try to change anything.

In this particular organization, he mentioned the staff had been there for decades and that culture is extremely difficult to change.

Have you ever heard how hockey players that play with elite player like Crosby and Gretzky say things like “these guys make everyone around them better”?  There’s something about working side-by-side with incredibly talented people that is motivating.  For me anyway.

The next time someone in your organization tells you “oh, that’s just the way things are around here” question that assumption.   Maybe you’ll become apathetic and dis-engaged like over half of all workers in the world over time but maybe, just maybe, you’ll inspire others to challenge the status quo and create un-believably wicked awesomeness.