We have always done it this way.
There is not a phrase in existence that I could despise more. Please don’t get me wrong, as a junior doctor it was a phrase that has helped me out of a few sticky situations when uttered by an experienced nurse who was watching my back. Here I’m talking about the other context though, the one where we are trying to improve, to innovate or maybe to dare to hope to make things better and when we are met by this giant, immovable, smug, grinning brick wall of “always”.
I can remember, in all detail, the very moment this intense hatred began. In the summer of 2001, I had just graduated with an Honours degree in Medical Molecular Biology and was waiting to start Medical School. I got a job in the quiet University bookshop. Perhaps I should have realised beforehand that my exuberance was not suited to such an endeavour but at least it taught me so, and quite quickly. I worked in the back office, selling books to libraries (not a tough job as it turned out, as books were all libraries seemed to buy).
The shop’s systems were laborious and complicated and there wasn’t a computer in sight. For the student who had started the first tentative websites for the University clubs and sports societies, and who when even younger, reveled in the potential of this new thing the internet, this was hard going.
I arrived at work one day to find a new batch of deliveries. It was periodicals day. The publishers sent them out to us, and it was my job to sort them out, figure out who they were destined for and make arrangements for delivery.
After an age of time-wasting I couldn’t take the system any longer. I went to speak to the boss Margaret. I didn’t whine, I simply made what I thought was a useful suggestion. I gave a solution to this time-wasting problem and I set out an argument for implementing it. Margaret, who glared at me over the top of her glasses, was not impressed. She lifted the tatty old notebook marked with a faded handwritten “periodicals” from the shelf, opened it up and handed it to me across her desk.
“This is how we have always done it” she said, and that was the end of that.
As I turned to leave I looked down at the notebook, to the page that she had handed me. What I saw stopped me in my tracks. The very first entry in the book was dated December 1978, on the day that I was born. Even more striking was that it was written in Margaret’s own distinctive handwriting and she had written in it, the same way, every month since.
She was happy with that. Some people just are. This was a battle I wasn’t going to win. I didn’t stay long in the back office selling books to libraries.
Those periodicals are online now. Margaret’s job is long gone.
So here’s how it makes me feel when you utter those words. You take all creativity, innovation, excitement and hope and you stamp on them, kick them, punch them in the face and bury them in a box. You draw a line in the sand and you take your place on the wrong side of it. There are two types of people on that sandy beach of yours. Those that proclaim we’ve always done it this way and those who move with the dunes.
First published by Suzie Edge at the primarysurvey blog, now unavailable.