What to do when a new employee asks “why do we do it that way?” (and you don’t know the answer)

6624 What To Do When A New Employee Asks Why Do We Do It That Way And You Dont Know The Answer

​Last week, I was fortunate enough to attend the RCSA International Conference. As always, they had lined up an array of brilliant speakers. One particular highlight was a fellow Gen Y, named Michael McQueen.

Michael’s message was clear. If you don’t cannibalise your business, another business will do it for you. In order to stay relevant in a changing world, we need to peel back some of the things on which your business was built.

As the proud owner of a successful business, this was a bitter pill to swallow. What do you mean that my innovative business idea is no longer innovative? How dare you say it is outdated and no longer relevant to the modern world?!?

This can be a particularly hard thing to hear, when you hear it from a new employee. Someone younger than you, someone less experienced than you, someone who has no right to tell you how you should run your business.



For I learned that it is the newest minds in our organisation that often have the freshest and most innovative ideas of all. They are the most inquisitive staff members. They are the ones that are not stuck doing something the way it has always been done, because they’ve never done it that way before.

Michael shared a great story about the US Military, which really resonated with me:

A few years ago, a group of new recruits were doing their basic training. One module of the training was how to use artillery guns. Their instructing officer told them that when they load a round into an artillery gun, make sure you have a watch on. For when you load an artillery round, you must wait exactly 8 seconds (not 7 seconds, not 9 seconds) before you fire it.

As the officer was about to move on to his next instruction, one of the new recruits did something that wasn’t really encouraged in military training. He raised his hand and asked “Sir, why do we wait 8 seconds”. The officer was thrown back by the question, perceiving it as insolence, dismissed the question and moved on with the training.

But the question stuck with him. A few days later the Officer spoke to another officer and asked him if he knew why we wait 8 seconds before we fire the artillery round. The Officer knew to wait 8 seconds, but did not know why, it was just the way he was taught.

After some research the pair discovered that the reason for the 8 second rule was that, years ago, the army used to use horses to haul the artillery guns to the front line. The 8 seconds was the time required to move the horses back away from the guns before it was fired, so the horses wouldn’t get startled.

This training took place only a couple of years ago. At that point, horses hadn’t been used to haul artillery for over 30 years. But the rule had stuck. It was a rule that made no sense in the modern world. The rule served no purpose. It was just the way that things had always been done.

If you were to look at your own business, are there rules, processes that simply do not make sense anymore?

I caught up with a good client recently, a well-regarded Managing Director of a leading engineering consultancy. He greeted me by saying “G’day Matt. Thanks for coming down. I see you’re still wearing that tie”.

Until a month ago, my business (a Recruitment Agency) had a dress-code policy where all male employees must wear a tie at all times. When one of our most important clients inadvertently pointed out that this was a bit odd, I asked myself “why do we do that?”

When I couldn’t come up with answer other than “it made sense in 2008 when I founded the business” it became obvious it was time to update our dress code policy to match the evolving professional environment we operate in. So we did, and we’re a better company for it.

So when an employee, on their first day, asks you “why do we do it that way?”, listen to the question and take it as a gift, not as a challenge to your authority. Don’t wait for the question to come from one of your key clients.

Wayne Dyer said “When we change the way we look at things, the things we look at change”. The world around us is changing, faster than ever before. For our businesses to remain relevant and successful, we need to be changing with it. If you don’t believe me? I would recommend giving the guys from Blockbuster, Kodak or Borders a call.

For more information on Michael McQueen, visit his website at http://michaelmcqueen.net/.