I heard a story long ago about the gauchos in Argentina – South American cowboys. Being good Catholics they wanted fish to eat on Fridays. But there were no ready sources of fish where they lived – so local merchants ordered fish to be ship by rail and sold to the gauchos. Everyone was happy: the railway made money on shipping, the merchants made money selling the fish, and the gauchos were happy because they were good Catholics.

After several years, the railway introduced a new innovation – the refrigerator car. They promised fresher fish and expected everyone to be happier. And everyone was happier … except for the gauchos.

Because, they insisted, the fish didn’t taste right.

The gauchos had really been eating rotten fish for years. So long, in fact, that they’d forgotten what fresh fish tasted like. According to the gauchos, fish was supposed to taste like it had been sitting out for days in hot railway cars.  That was all they knew.

If you’ve never eaten fresh fish, rotten fish is how fish should taste.
What the above story reveals – besides that fact that people can eat disgusting things – is that unless you experience the alternatives even the most painful, horrible, disgusting things can seem normal.
It’s easy. It’s the basis for almost every slow crisis we’ve seen. Lots of people and companies are still doing inefficient or harmful things – even though they cost money or cause pain and suffering – because that’s what they’re used to. Or because the effort to change seems worse than risk that something bad will happen. They’re filling out paper forms and submiting them … so someone else to read them and type the information into a computer. They’re still using faxes because they “have to have a signature.” They’re receiving paper bills and entering them into an bookkeeping program – then printing that out so their accountant can enter it into HIS system when he does their taxes. They’re wasting time, energy, and resources.

If you’re stuck in a bureaucracy full of rotten fish-eaters, there’s not much you can do unless you can convince the people at the top that the effort to change is worth the saved pain and money. Until then, the only was to cope is to follow the rules I was told on my first day of active duty in the Navy:

1. Forget logic
2. Assume nothing

That means you accept that people are often irrational – that they’ll do things the hard way for illogical reasons – and that you ask lots of questions instead of assuming you understand a situation (see last month’s post: Why Asking Stupid Questions Makes You Look Smart ). A lot of headaches have been averted by following those two rules.

And then do the same for yourself. Look at your own life – What rotten fish are you eating? How would you even know if you were?
*Is there something wrong or inefficient that everyone does that you’ve accepted as the norm?
*Have you spent so long around people who are manipulative and inefficient that you doubt everyone’s motives?
*Does changing paperwork or switching to online systems make you nervous?
*What complex things are you doing that could be simplified?
*Are there things you’ve been doing “the hard way”- even though everyone else does it an easier way –  because you got burned by one bad experience? Be honest about what you’re afraid of and learn more about your options.
What changes can you make now… in a week… in a month… to start eliminating the rotten fish from your life?

A physicist by trade, author by choice, a born teacher, a retired veteran, and an adamant problem solver, Frank has helped the White House, federal agencies, military offices, historical museums, manufacturers, and over 250 technology startups get stuff done, communicate effectively, and find practical solutions that work for them. In his spare time, he makes sawdust and watches Godzilla movies.