Old dogs and new tricks
By Bob Hueston on Jan 29, 2007
Note that the subject of the maxim is not the dog; the subject is you. "You can't teach..." The saying is not, "Old dogs cannot learn new tricks." The problem isn't with the old dog; it's with you.
Old dogs are perfectly capable of learning. A dog learns tricks when it is in the best interest of the dog to learn the trick, when it believes it needs to learn a new trick in order to earn the respect of the owner, when it needs to survive. But after the owner and dog have lived together for years, they know each other. The dog knows that the owner loves and respects it; the dog knows it does not have to learn any new tricks to win approval. Dogs are actually very smart, and lazy. It knows if it just continues to do what it's always been doing, it will still get fed tomorrow.
If you bring in a new owner, on the other hand, the dog is no longer complacent in its current situation. It doesn't know if the new owner will accept the dog unless it learns new tricks. The dog is therefore motivated to learn in order to ensure a secure and prosperous future. I recently adopted a seven-year-old dog. The previous owner warned that the dog begged at the table and there was no way to discourage it. So she continued to feed it table scraps while she ate. But once in our home, after a few days of making it clear that begging at our table was not allowed, the dog stopped. It now sits just outside the kitchen door while we eat and waits, knowing that it will be fed as soon as we're all done. It quickly learned the trick: If it waited patiently it would get fed.
Most people (and almost all engineers) are smart and lazy, like dogs (the rest of the people are just dump and lazy). If a leader tries to teach a team of engineers a new trick, it can be extremely difficult. I once had a manager who never required status reports. Then one day, he announced that all engineers would have to submit written status reports by 5pm every Friday. We all listened carefully, and laughed on the inside. The first week, everyone submitted status reports. The second week, about half the people submitted status reports. I think only one person filed a report on the third week (and no, it wasn't me). We all knew that the manager was not about to fire anyone for failing to submit a status report. And he didn't. He mentioned the status reports for a couple more weeks, then the matter simply died quietly. We all knew it would.
Sun itself is another example. A couple of years ago, the dot-com bubble had burst and Sun was losing money left and right. While Scott McNealy is a terrific leader who grew Sun to be a key player in the Unix server market, it took a new leader to teach this old dog new tricks.
If a team is going to learn new tricks, that is, adopt significant new processes, first the leader must change. The change may be physical (replace the person who is the leader) or metaphysical (the leader changes himself). It can be extremely difficult, sometimes impossible, for a person to change himself, hence the saying: You can't teach an old dog new tricks.