1940s culture still exists in business world

black and white picture of typewriter on desk with chair

“Remember that the six most expensive words in business are: ‘We’ve always done it that way’.”

Catherine DeVrye


‘”You just don’t understand how we do things around here.’


‘We tried it that way once <and the person who suggested it is no longer here>.’


As a companion to the ‘conserving institutions’ piece, I pulled out this piece I wrote in January 2015. Why? Well. I am surrounded by brilliant organizational design people, behavioral experts and ‘futurists.’ My inbox, and head, is constantly being bombarded with ‘new normal’ and ‘anyone who ignores this future will shrivel up and die’ type messaging. I, being a bit pragmatic, take it all in and assess the world as it exists. But even I sometimes overlook the strength of conserving institutions. In this piece I, prompted by a good friend of mine – African American – working in Midwest USA, point out that ‘conserving’ has dimensions and sometimes those dimensions stretch back much much farther than we like to admit. Below is the note he sent me.

“1940’s are strong.” So as we rail against the ‘bring people back into the office versus remote working’ people and scream at the top of our lungs at how business has been fundamentally changed by the pandemic, maybe we should pause at the strength of conserving attitudes and, well, just ponder a bit.

From January 2015.


As a ‘possibilities’ business guy I tend to view the business world as in constant flux. Constant change. Dynamic. The relentless push & shove of holding on and letting go. Huge monumental shifts in the earth’s strata.

I tend to focus on the shift.

Shifts that you just can’t ignore.

Shifts that impact civilizations and cultures.

Shifts that impact the way businesses do business and conduct business and build their business organization.

Admittedly. I tend to forget that tectonic plates shift very very slowly.  And that some land masses do not move at all. I was reminded of that when a good friend sent me a frustrated note about a business he was working within. His point? The 1940’s still live.


He is right.


Maybe not the 40’s, but certainly a 70’s or 80’s style of an organization.

For all our talk about Apple and Zappo’s and Netflix and Haier and many other businesses, many organizations, are holding on to their past.

  • Culturally they are steeped <stuck> in some perceived tradition.
  • Functionally they are steeped <stuck> in ‘why fix it if it ain’t broke’ and attitudes with regard to what motivates people.
  • Organizationally, with employees, they are steeped <stuck> in a white, male leadership and female-driven administrative, or ‘doing’, roles. And diversity? Well. “We have some people of color.” Right.
  • Organizationally, with resources, they are steeped <stuck> in traditionally <even with communications> ‘worked then and is most effective now’ mentality.

** note: on the last thought, while we talk about ‘digital transformation’ and technologically up-to-date the majority (from a sheer #’s standpoint) of businesses still use paper, pens, older computers and filing cabinets.

While almost everyone knows technology enhances speed, efficiency and effectiveness, the adoption to the ‘futurist’ view of how it should be is woefully lacking in most companies.

While it is fairly common understanding that a diverse employee organizationally enhances a broader mind & context & perspective <which should enable better ideas and process> the reality is many existing businesses perceive they have a diverse, successful, thought process.


Many of you have already tuned out. You are saying ‘this isn’t relevant to me’ or ‘this isn’t true.’


This is reality.

The bulk of businesses in the world are built upon ‘what I know’ or ‘what I learned as I grew up.’

Most businesses are not built on any more global view or broader business perspective.

Most businesses use local consultants <if any> and those local consultants typically have smaller experience bases and absorb ‘broader view’ through conventions or books.

This all leads to what most high falutin’ business thinkers would see as insufficient reactions to a shifting external world. While industries change constantly, sometimes radical and fast, sometimes shifting more subtly, most businesses are small to medium size and they are just doing what they are doing — making as minimal change as possible and doing what they learned as they learned the business.

I say that because any change, and certainly much of the change organizational design people talk about, is the last thing these business people are focused on.  Maintaining the status quo is what makes the profit they do make.

Plus. It feels good and comfortable to them so they hesitate <fear> to change anything.


What makes it additionally difficult is that for every big change there is a big ‘non-change.’ What I mean is that there is some overhyped ‘a big change is a-comin’’ and lo and behold it was some futurist tripe that never entered into the real world. I would argue that non-changes may affect most businesses more than real change does mostly because it actually encourages no change. It encourages a company who can find quaint reason to maintain their 1940’s attitude and behavior <although they most likely use and say all the right words about ‘contemporary thinking’> to not change. To maintain the status quo. To maintain ‘what has worked in the past.’


Because most businesses really aren’t that sophisticated in its organizational and culture thinking there is an opposing group of companies out there – the ‘fly by the seat of their pants because the old way is too slow’ group of businesses. This group of businesses reject the 1940’s traditional thinking as so archaic that they completely reject, well, everything. And therefore they just go on instinct.

Their constant go-to-market attitude is ‘good enough to go.’


I think they are just as scary as the businesses stuck in the past <just in a different way> and I say that as someone who tends to gravitate to the new business way of thinking rather than the old-style thinking.


Both types of businesses aggravate <frustrate> me.

In general, most businesses do the best they can, and try really hard to be contemporary in thinking, but they aren’t. The Zappo’s, Apples, Nikes are exceptions.

And we should remember that.

Personally, all this makes me realize I am stuck in the middle.

Radical to the old school.

Old to the new school.

I know I am willing to suck it up and step in to a 1940’s mentality company and try to get some movement in updating how they think and how they behave.  Just as I am willing <and more likely to do> to suck it up and step in to the instinctual chaotic business and show them how to slow down enough to be smart and principled and there are degrees of ‘just good enough to go.’

My place in the business world clearly places me in the in between.

My career steeped me in methodology, principles, rigor and ‘get everything right before going.’ But as I shifted to different companies, I learned the value of ‘thoughtful speed.’ Therefore, I eventually learned how to maintain the rigor <at least thought wise>, but get it close to ‘instinctual speed.’

That attitude bridges most company’s needs.


Lastly. In both situations I described, the businesses stuck in the past and the businesses working solely on instinct, they just don’t know any better. This may sound odd if all you do is live online or go to “Purpose conventions” or only read about Learning Organizations, but most businesses don’t reside in that world.

That said. Because they don’t know any better, they fall to the most fundamental things they can grasp:


selling is ‘sales’ (not value)

features & benefits (with an emphasis on features)

This may be the most 1940ish of all. A lot of businesses still try to sell products and services based solely on functions and benefits.


It is solid rationale.

It is the simplest rationale.

How can you go wrong if the public understands what this widget can do then they will buy it?

Oops. That rationale has been unequivocally shattered over the years, but it remains the simplistic truth <and it is certainly a truth just maybe just not the whole truth>. And it remains the standard truth in most businesses.



Tapping into something different. Something more powerful, motivating, and memorable like value, shared values (which is often more important to a local/smaller business) or shared attitude is much more difficult, not more expensive necessarily, just more difficult.

Most small and medium size business people may conceptually understand that purchase decisions are made in the part of the brain that is touched thru emotional connection and not solely on facts and information, but practically? They have difficulty grasping how to make it happen. That is also a version of 1940’s thinking.

Anyway. I have certainly written and spoken about it ad nausea, but, the majority of businesses <which consist of the 10’s of thousands of small and medium size> are simply trying to keep their heads above the water.

To be clear <part 1>

A 1940’s business style, shit, a 1970’s business style is archaic and creates a stagnant business <albeit that stagnant could still be profitable … just not long term sustainable>.

To be clear <part 2>.

I am not suggesting it’s not important to build on your past successes and not simply change for the sake of change..

But, never forget that, even if you don’t change, your competitors and customers may.

It is necessary to change.

Any organization, regardless of its current or past success, has to remain open to new ideas.

Any organization, regardless of its current or past success, has to assess what it is conserving and why.

In the end.

I could simply point out that past success is no guarantee of future success.

I could simply point out that past ways of doing things look significantly better in the rear view mirror <in memory> than they actually were.

I could simply point out that every older generation believes the following generations are <a> lazier, <b> less smart, <c> too impatient, <d> entitled and <e> too quick to discard successful things of the past.


I could simply point out it is a recipe for disaster to continue to do things the same old way without at least occasionally assessing if your current modus operandi is actually working to its fullest potential <and, yes, I admit ‘fullest potential’ can mean a variety of things to someone on the inside of a company versus someone like me outside the company>.


There are 1940’s style businesses strewn across America <and I imagine around the world>.

I walk into dozens of businesses and curiously explore their innards all the time and I attempt to provide constructive advice. But the truth is that sometimes it would be better if the young people, or the few black people or minorities within the organization, were mentoring me.

Ok. Maybe not mentoring, but certainly giving me a framework to contextualize what I know. For even within all the 1940’s mentality there almost always resides a mind or two seeking to bring the success a business is having, in a relevant way, into a present or future in which it could thrive.

But. That said. Remember. “The 1940’s are strong.” Conserving institutions conserve.


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Written by Bruce