What do pot roast and keyboards have in common?
"Why do we do it that way?" is a common question. And one worth asking. For the reasons for doing it may no longer be valid, and in many cases changing the way we do it may be beneficial.
Some time ago, I heard the story of a woman who had her entire family for pot roast on New Years Day. In her preparation of the meat, she proceeded to cut the pot roast in half, placed the pieces into two long baking pans, then place them both into the oven.
Her daughter said, "Mommy, why did you cut the meat in half?" The Mom thought for a moment, and said, well that's the way Grandma always used to do it.
Grandma was standing nearby in the kitchen, so the Mom asked her, "So, why did you always cut the pot roast in half?"
The Grandmother said, "Because the baking pan I had was not long enough to hold the whole pot roast!"
Have you ever heard the concept of "path dependence"? It's an important idea...illustrated by the cut-in-half pot roast. What we do today is dependent on past circumstance, although often those circumstance to not exist any more!
Let's look at another more technology-oriented example of path dependence, the QUERTY keyboard design.
The QUERTY Keyboard
The QWERTY keyboard design is named for the order of letters along the top left. Check your keyboard - it's there and is universal in the Western world!
This ubiquitous letter combination on keyboards has been in place for well over 100 years, with a patent dating back as far as 1878.
Here's why it's that way. As the story goes, C. Latham Sholes, the designer of the QWERTY keyboard, developed this particular configuration to prevent the typewriter from jamming. The theory goes that this particular design helped slow down users to the extent that the typing mechanism - long rods with an embossed letter on the end, actuated by pushing a letter key - wouldn't jam.
Now, I understand there are some conflicting legends on the course of this, but the above story sounds plausible enough - at least enough for me to make my point...
...the point being that the QWERTY keyboard was NOT designed for today's world! That old mechanical design have long since been replaced with silicone chips, and the reason for this design no longer exists!
So...why are we still using this antiquated design?
Like the cut-in-half pot roast, the answer is "path dependence"!
Learning from Path Dependence
The concept of path dependence says, simply, that
THE DECISIONS WE MAKE TODAY ARE DEPENDENT ON PAST CIRCUMSTANCES,
WHETHER OR NOT THEY ARE RELEVANT ANY MORE
There are lots of examples of path dependence: gasoline-powered cars, alternating current, DVDs,.... However, path dependence is not restricted to technologies. Among other places, I would venture to say that path dependence is found widely in business processes. These readily fall within the domain of project management teams and can provide both risks and opportunities.
There is something to be learned from pot roast and keyboards! Look for the risks and opportunities by being alert for examples of path dependence!