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Why we do what we do

I spent a large portion of my working life in analysing, designing and writing Computer Systems. When I first did it, it was known as Systems Analysis and Design. It is now known as business analysis.

When I later taught systems analysis and design at a TAFE college, as part of the systems analysis section of the subject, I had to explain to students that when questioning users of existing systems it was extremely important to ask not only how functions were performed but also WHY functions were performed.

The rationale was that it was not logical to build a new system that repeated the functions of the old system when some of those functions were not required at all or could be performed in a more efficient way.

I used to give a number of examples.

One was where an organisation would send a document from Perth to Melbourne every week. The people in Melbourne would then file the document. On questioning, why, this was done, a typical answer was given. That being, “ that is the way we have always done it”. On further investigation it was discovered that the information in the document was not being used. At some point the document was inadvertently sent to Melbourne instead of Sydney. It was also determined the document was no longer required in Sydney. Yet the process had been continued for a number of years.

Another example I would give, that had nothing to do with business analysis was the story (unable to be verified) of a mother that would always cut a roast into two pieces before placing it in the oven. When asked why had she did this, she said, because that was the way that my mother did it. So the grandmother was asked why she did it, and her answer was, because that's the way my mother did. Fortunately the great grandmother was still alive, and when she was asked the reason that she did it, she replied because the roast was to big to fit in her small oven.

More recently, I have come across what is called the Five Monkey Concept. Some people call it the Five Monkey Experiment, however based on the researchers I have been able to do, the exact circumstances of the experiment cannot be verified. See here.

So I would rather call it the Five Monkey Parable.

Although there are many variations of the story, (do a Google search on it) it goes something like this:

A group of scientists placed 5 monkeys in a cage and in the middle, a ladder with bananas on the top. Every time a monkey went up the ladder, the scientists soaked the rest of the monkeys with cold water. After a while, every time a monkey went up the ladder, the others beat up the one on the ladder. After some time, no monkey dared to go up the ladder regardless of the temptation.

Scientists then decided to substitute one of the monkeys. The 1st thing this new monkey did was to go up the ladder. Immediately the other monkeys beat him up.

After several beatings, the new member learned not to climb the ladder even though he never knew why.

A 2nd monkey was substituted and the same occurred. The 1st monkey participated on the beating for the 2nd monkey. A 3rd monkey was changed and the same was repeated (beating). The 4th was substituted and the beating was repeated and finally the 5th monkey was replaced. What was left was a group of 5 monkeys that even though never received a cold shower, continued to beat up any monkey who attempted to climb the ladder. If it was possible to ask the monkeys why they would beat up all those who attempted to go up the ladder … I bet you the answer would be … “I don't know — that's how things are done around here” Does it sound familiar?

Often wording such as, “and this is how government policy is enforced”, or “this is how organisational policy is created”, appear at the end of the text.

The important point here is that we are all creatures of habit and the old adage, “ old habits die hard” is very true.

We're supposed to be living in an era of rapid change yet there are many things in life that we seem to be unable to change, even though such a change would result in dramatic increases in efficiencies.

why_we_do_what_we_do.txt · Last modified: 2013/05/11 14:47 (external edit)