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March 26, 2007 » 12:33 am

Hold Your Horses!

Gavin Clabaugh tells a wonderful story about the origins of the saying, “Hold your horses,” and cites a number of every day examples of our inability to adapt to change:    (M10)

Confronted by today’s rapid pace of technological change, organizations hold a lot of horses; the faster the change, the more horses. We all do it. We treat web sites like magazines, databases like report producers, voicemail like a “while you were out” pad, and email like it was direct mail….    (M11)

Non profits are not immune — in fact they’re probably worse. Working with nonprofits as a consultant, I’ve often walked into what felt like an imaginary stable, horses being held steady to the left and right; a regular day at the races. To quote again Dr. [Elting Morison], “The tendency is apparently involuntary and immediate to protect oneself against the shock of change by continuing in the presence of altered situations the familiar habits, however incongruous, of the past.”    (M12)

…    (M13)

Language too, can show you where the horses are stabled: it’s slow to keep up. When things are in flux, language usually reflects the associated angst. That’s why you still here the phrase “in the can” when a news crew finishes a video shoot — it refers to the act of putting the film into a sealed container or “can.” Film is gone, and so is the can, but the language has failed to adapt. The examples are everywhere: “b-roll,” “post-modern,” “post-industrial,” “login,” and “boot,” or for that matter, “reboot.” Our brains hold horses and we don’t even notice. I shudder, for example, when I hear voicemail with a message like: “Can you call me back. I need to ask you a question.” We’re thinking pink “While you were out” pads. Sadly, I am not immune.    (M14)

There are several good stories like, “Hold your horses.” Paul Graham relates a great one from Primo Levi on varnish recipe that called for one raw onion. And I’ve heard several people tell the story about the family recipe for roast that called for slicing off the end of a perfectly good hunk of meat. (The grandmother originally did this because her oven was too small to hold the entire roast.) And if you like similar stories about the origins of our language, check out Bill Bryson‘s, Made In America: An Informal History of the English Language in the United States.    (M15)

I don’t mind the fact that language doesn’t adapt with the times. But I definitely mind when people and organizations fail to adapt. Not that it’s easy. Gavin’s conclusion is especially important:    (M16)

Organizations too, fight back against change, eliminating all but the slimmest possibility of “change from within.” In the same study, Morison concludes that “[T]he deadlock between those who sought change and those who sought to retain things as they were was only broken by an appeal to a superior force, a force removed from, and unidentified with, the mores, conventions, and devices of the society.” The argument, the great generalization, here is that no institution can reform itself. Truly, it’s a rare institution that can. That reform requires rare bravery, rare vision and even rarer leadership. And, it is why, the view from without is so valuable sometimes. I could see the bridles in the hands of the cabin attendants. They could not.    (M17)

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