In a probably apocryphal story, a scientist places a group of 5 gorillas in a cage. At the beginning of the day, he puts a banana on top of a pedestal. Whenever a gorilla attempts to climb toward the banana, he sprays all the gorillas with water, which they hate. This continues until no gorilla even attempts to get the banana. Then he takes one gorilla out, and puts in a new one. As the new gorilla tries to climb to get the banana, all the other gorillas tackle him to keep him from the ascent — no one likes to be sprayed with water. As the original gorillas get swapped out, each new gorilla learns the lesson that those bananas are off-limits. Eventually none of the original gorillas are left, yet still the lore lives on and no gorilla aspires for the banana, not because of the water, but because of peer pressure.
During my tenure at a startup company, about 5 years after we got VC funded, we got a new CEO, some additional cash, and started hiring. Both the VC and the CEO wanted to see us attempt to do things differently. Whenever they would ask a question, we would tend to tell them the story about how we got here. They said, forget all that and let’s start fresh. It was hard to do because so much of where we were at came from how things had developed. How could we proceed as though none of that existed?
While I understood their point, I didn’t really understand the power of past lore until starting to work again for a larger company. Since I wasn’t there for all the layoffs 10 years ago, or the ascent of some of the leadership, or the power struggles between departments, I have no emotional connection to suggesting we do things in a different way. I feel unbound by what happened in the past to influence what we should do going forward. Yet as I discuss ideas with others, I can see that it’s hard to escape the water spray from the past and it’s not just that these people heard stories, they were personally sprayed and don’t want that to happen again. So it’s hard to get them to see past that and try again.
Our past influences the way we perceive what can happen in the future. This can enlighten us to avoid past mistakes and find better solutions. But it can also trap us into thinking there is nothing we can do different. Getting new perspectives helps challenge what might be changeable, but we also should respect the lore even as we work to change it.
[Related Post: For Fear Of Getting Burned]
Photo Credit: USAG-Humphreys