Remember the last time the keys on your computer jammed because you were typing too fast? Neither do I.
The fact is, our QWERTY keyboards are an artifact of history, a solution to a problem that hasn’t existed for at least half a century: typewriter keys jamming when you type too fast. The solution was to design a keyboard which reduced the speed at which someone could type. Even though that problem hasn’t existed at least since the 1960’s IBM Selectric Typewriter, with its “letter ball,” we still use QWERTY keyboards. Better keyboard layouts do exist, but that hasn’t changed the fact that QWERTY still owns approximately 98% of the keyboard market. QWERTY is so accepted that even my spell-checker recognizes QWERTY as a word.
Now, one can make all manner of arguments about how QWERTY persists because there is a significant investment in QWERTY keyboard manufacturing in place, or because most people are comfortable with QWERTY keyboards and don’t want to learn something new, or that learning the more efficient Dvorak keyboard isn’t a transferable skill, and so forth. All of these arguments are even sort of true, albeit of questionable relevance. Fundamentally, they call boil down to tradition. We’ve always done it this way, so let’s keep doing it this way. Everything else arises in response to that.
Maybe this isn’t such a big deal in the world of keyboards. After all, most people are pretty happy with their QWERTY keyboards, and it’s not that hard to use a Dvorak if you really want to. The QWERTY phenomenon can be more of a problem, though, in large organizations where continually solving a problem that no longer exists wastes time, energy, and resources.
The “way we’ve always done it” is very attractive. It’s familiar, safe, something we often don’t think much about. Doing things the way we’ve always done them feels good, like putting on a favorite coat. Sure, it may not be as nice or as warm as a new one, but it’s comfortable. We’ve grown used to it. Quite frequently, we’ve built up structures or procedures to help us do whatever it is we’ve always done. Those structures and procedures, like QWERTY keyboard factories, give us a convenient excuse to not make changes.
Founded over a century ago, General Motors learned many lessons about how to sell cars. Those lessons were the results of hard won victories over competitors and economic disasters including the Great Depression. Those lessons made GM the most successful auto maker in the world for many years. Those same lessons, unfortunately, also eventually led to a GM executive pointing to a GM parking lot and declaring there was no need to worry about competition because there were no foreign cars in the lot. The world, and the competitive landscape, had changed and GM hadn’t kept up. They were, metaphorically, still happily using their QWERTY keyboards in a world where everyone else had moved on to something far more effective. It took an economic disaster and the near destruction of the company to force them to start facing modern problems instead of hiding comfortably behind old ones.
By comparison, IBM badly misjudged the computer market in the late 1980s and early 1990s. They were so accustomed to being on top that they simply couldn’t imagine any need to do things differently. Thus, the techniques they’d learned selling giant multi-million dollar computer systems to large corporations were the same techniques they applied to selling little tiny PCs to individuals. The results were underwhelming. It took the first loss in the company’s history to shake them out of their complacency. For the first time in IBM history an outsider, Lou Gerstner, was brought in to run the company. He successfully refocused IBM on the market in front of them, not the market they were used to being in.
Giant companies are not the only ones vulnerable to this “QWERTY trap.” It’s a game everyone can play. One Silicon Valley company I worked with asked me to convince all their employees to work twelve hour days. When I pushed them on what they were trying to accomplish, they first spoke about deadlines, fixing bugs, and customer commitments. When I kept pushing, it eventually turned out that they wanted their employees to work twelve hour days because, “This is Silicon Valley and that’s what we do here!” Once I convinced them that a more sane work schedule would make more sense, we saw productivity go up and both the quantity and the severity of software bugs go down. The company actually started hitting its deadlines.
It’s easy to get caught up in the idea that the way to do things today is the way we’ve always done them. It’s also easy to use existing procedures and policies to justify our desire not to change. Doing things the familiar way feels good. However, just because something feels good doesn’t mean it’s actually doing what we think it’s doing. It pays to stop periodically and check to see that we’re doing is actually solving the problems in front of us, not problems that disappeared fifty years ago.