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Join my War on Legacy Thinking

Years ago, I attended an airline client's conference in Seattle. A great harbour-side city which was then the centre of the surging grunge music scene (remember Nirvana etc?). I also took the opportunity to drop into the Microsoft campus at Redmond, because they were a client too and we were about to launch Windows 95 for them.

What an eye-opener that was. Young stock-optioned kids in shorts pulling up in the Microsoft car park in the latest model Ferraris, Mercedes, etc (this was years before Tesla was invented). Free food in the canteen. And an open-style free-form work environment which seemed more summer camp than serious workplace.

Of course, now, all of that has become the norm in Silicon Valley and more progressive companies around the world who know how to motivate the best performance from their people.

With the conference over, I went for a stroll around the city and stumbled across a fabulous old antique store in a former waterfront warehouse. What an Aladdin's cave of stuff! Right at the back left-hand corner of the shop I spotted an Underwood typewriter, a 1928 model. You know the elegantly clunky cast iron things that weight approximately the same as a Mini Minor. It was gleaming, in perfect working order, and only $65. Sold!

Typing on it, though, proved more difficult because its circular keys took some pressure to press down, and when you did, they triggered a metal swing arm with that letter on it to go crashing into the page, and then spring back, ready to be triggered again.

But at least the swing arms were not tangling. Because that problem had already been solved in 1874 by American inventor Christopher Scholes who had developed the QWERTY keyboard layout (which this Underwood typewriter had).

Now, over 140 years later, we still use the QWERTY keyboard. Long after the original problem of swinging-crashing-tangling metal arms has gone away. And long after other options, such as the Dvorak keyboard -- which boasted an increase of 30% in productivity -- have been proposed.


Two words: 'Legacy Thinking.'

To sum that up in one word: 'Habit.'

Legacy thinking is basically 'the way we've always done it around here'. And the sheer force of that inertia is what has driven many design decisions, long after the original reason for that thing had disappeared.

For example, broadsheet newspapers. Large, impractical, unwieldy, especially when trying to read on a train or plane. They were introduced in 1712 after the British government imposed taxes on newspapers based on how many pages they contained. Solution: print on larger broadsheet pages, therefore less pages, therefore less tax. But now that the tax no longer exists, why do newspapers still persist in using that impractical format? Legacy thinking.

Another example: why do modern jet planes have the main controls on the left? Because historically cavalry officers mounted horses from the left, so that their swords and legs didn't tangle. That thinking was automatically carried forward into the jet age. Well, that problem has clearly gone away, but the design decision still unquestioningly persists. Legacy thinking.

Yet another example: the width of the standard gauge rail line in the USA is 4 foot 8.5 inches. Why? Because the early railways were constructed by the British. So they used the British gauge. Why were British rail lines 4 foot 8.5 inches wide? Because that's how wide the tram lines used to be. Why were the tram lines that wide? Because the people who built the trams employed machines used to build horse carriages before. And that was the width of the wheel ruts in the old roads of England. And who built those original roads? The ancient Romans about 1800 years ago. Legacy thinking.

The examples go on for ever: Why do military members salute each other? To lift your visor to be identified. Why do we shake hands with the right hand? To show we're not going to reach for our sword. Why do cars have two headlights? Because the horse carriage had two, one to light the way each side of the horse. Well, the horse has long since gone, but we still measure engines in horsepower, don't we?

You get the idea.

Legacy thinking is all around, carried forward mindlessly in many cases.

Just because.

In the business world I call it 'Corporate Cargo' ... those great sandbags of ballast that might be slowing us down, holding us back, creating drag and lag.

Take a minute now to think of what Legacy Thinking exists in your industry?

In your company? In your business unit?

So is there a quick fix?

I'm not sure it's quick. But the best thing is to start resisting nostalgia. Don't remain married to ideas, solutions and practices for which the original catalyst or problem has long since disappeared.

Respect the past of your industry and your company.

But don't revere it.

By revering it, we accept too many of the built-in assumptions and that just adds to our baggage. So we need to surface those assumptions and challenge them. Including the most dearly held unchallengeable ones. Especially those.

Oh, and why are you wearing that tie? You do know that they were invented back in the 17th century, and were first used to identify Croatian mercenaries fighting for King Louis XIII? Well, that war is long since over, my friends.

And as for the airline whose conference I attended? Gone out of business a long time ago. Legacy thinking.

But -- whether you are in Seattle, Shanghai, Singapore or Sydney -- the War on Legacy Thinking must start today. Smells like teen spirit to me.

Question Everything! Stu

(on the road in Bangkok, Sydney and Singapore this week)

Think of 3 people who might benefit from reading this, and kindly forward to them. Thanks!

About the Author

Stu Lloyd

International Trainer, Speaker, Coach and Consultant

Stu is a professional storyteller for 30 years. He was a creative director in Ad agencies, author of 7 books, journalist, travel writer/blogger, specialist military history tour guide, TEDx MC/Speaker coach, trainer for Fortune 500s and entrepreneur.

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