The Public Space
April 09, 2014
the way we’ve always done it
by Ken Mayer
I sometimes tell my business school students a little story about how organizations can get stuck in their ways.
Seems one Thanksgiving a toddler is “helping” mom prepare the traditional meal and asks, “Mommy, why do you cut the wings and legs off the turkey?” Mom replies that it’s the way her mother taught her to do it and suggested asking grandma.
The child goes to grandma and poses the same question and gets the same reply that her mother always did it that way, but suggests that when great grandma gets here from the assisted living community that they should ask her.
Great grandma arrives, and all gather to get the answer to the youngster’s question. The query is posed once again, and great grandma rolls her eyes and delivers one of those withering “that’s a stupid question” looks that only a mother can. She proceeds to explain that the oven in her first home was too small to accommodate a bird large enough to feed the whole family so she made it work by roasting it in pieces.
Students can quickly come up with examples in their own companies where the reasons for practices and procedures, even prohibitions and fears, are lost in the mists of time.
Likewise, as a longtime concert goer and one-time marketing director for a symphony orchestra, I’ve often wondered about all the rigmarole. Why the tie and tails get up? Why the cacophony before the concert? Unlike opera or jazz, why wait to clap? Why does the hall have to be treated like grandma’s living room, no drinks in there, sit up straight, yada yada yada?
Despite hearing a number of answers to these sorts of questions, it all seemed to come back to “That’s the way we’ve always done it.” The only sensible response was from no less than the music director. The Maestro commented that he was indifferent, in fact, he even felt it was fine if people fell asleep because, he explained, the music would get into their heads anyway.
So how do we avoid the “way we’ve always done it” syndrome? The Maestro was focused on his audience. He felt it was his job to get the power and emotion of the music into their heads regardless of the trappings and traditions.
This is a commonly expressed but little practiced idea. In business, it’s called a customer orientation. In the Project for Public Spaces Place Game that Omaha by Design offers, it’s the first principle, “The community is the expert.”
Unfortunately bureaucrats, civic and nonprofit leadership are often out of touch. They don’t see us regular folks as their customers. That’s understandable, because their livelihoods depend on keeping those with money and power happy, so donors and governance are their real customers.
Maybe it’s time to change that. Do a Place Game. Be creative. Tell us what you want your space to be. You don’t have to do a design, just talk about how the space should work, how it should feel.
Then if you don’t get what you want, tell officials that you aren’t happy with the result. You may even have to raise some money to get what you want, but remember, it’s your park, it’s your street, and it’s your community.
To be good neighbors, we owe it to each other to get organized and work to make the neighborhood a better place. Sometimes it makes sense to do things the way we’ve always done them, but even then, we need to know the reason why.
The Public Space
Ken Mayer is a freelance writer, photographer, consultant and adjunct faculty member at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. He has served on the boards of The Nebraska Choral Arts Society, Downtown Omaha Inc. and Landmark’s Inc. Mr. Mayer has been a consultant and volunteer for Omaha by Design since 2002.