Leaving Your Octagonal Outhouse

We were touring Kings Landing, the historical Loyalist settlement outside Fredericton, New Brunswick in Canada, when a child in our group asked, “What’s that?”  “That” turned out to be a little white octagonal building in the pretty gardens outside the Ingraham House (visible in the picture above).  Upon closer inspection, we discovered that it was in fact an octagonal outhouse.  This led to a humorous explanation given to a mystified child who previously was unaware that some people lived without the comforts of indoor plumbing.

After visiting the house and gardens, it was apparent that Mr. Ingraham had been a person of means in his small community.  His octagonal outhouse was probably considered in its time to be very modern and sophisticated.  (In fact, both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson constructed octagonal outhouses on their properties.)  And yet, looking back on it from the vantage point of the 21st century, it’s clear that the best was yet to come.

While standing in the Ingraham House gardens I found myself wondering what octagonal outhouses we were most proud of.  In other words, what 21st century things did we consider modern and sophisticated that would, with the passage of time, seem odd and outdated?  It’s worth asking that question of the technology and business processes you once prized.  Do you really have a clear view of their capabilities?  Do they still meet your needs?  Do they represent the best of current thinking or are they shopworn and past their sell by date?  If you don’t ask these questions periodically, you may find yourself hobbled by systems that no longer adequately support your work.

It’s astonishing how long we can tolerate substandard systems, seemingly unconscious of the toll they take on our productivity and morale.  Unlike the dinosaurs, we too often adapt to the shortcomings of our environment and soldier on without complaint. One of the functions of knowledge management is to help organizations upgrade their business processes and technology over time so that they continue to meet the needs of an evolving enterprise.  This requires identifying the octagonal outhouses in your organization and regularly asking tough questions about them.  Above all, it requires a willingness to leave your octagonal outhouses behind and lead the way to more modern solutions.

[Photo Credit:  Kings Landing Historical Settlement]

8 thoughts on “Leaving Your Octagonal Outhouse

  1. It’s a delicate dance, isn’t it, challenging the status quo to see if it’s worth preserving and recognising when an idea, process or system has reached its stale date. Changing for change’s sake can be as disruptive and morale-reducing as letting “that’s how we do things” become the only way to proceed.

    1. Wendy –

      You’re absolutely right about how complicated and challenging this is. However, as long as we continue to ask if we’re looking at an octagonal outhouse we can start the needed conversation.

      – Mary

  2. At the risk of sounding like a broken record I couldn’t help but think EMAIL! EMAIL EMAIL! when I read this passage:

    “It’s astonishing how long we can tolerate substandard systems, seemingly unconscious of the toll they take on our productivity and morale.”

    1. Too true, Daniel! It will be interesting to see how long companies cling to their e-mail octagonal outhouses. What’s so hard is that unlike the 18th creators of the octagonal outhouse, we do have better options. We just choose not to adopt them.

      – Mary

  3. Sometimes it’s also a give and take. I am hoping to launch an internal wiki for my organization. Just recently I was told not to “rock the boat” by challenging an existing enterprise solution that is riddled with problems or else my wiki business plan/implementation might not get passed.

    As I LOVE Thomas Jefferson, I just wanted to share a little trivia about his love of architecture and, in particular, the octagonal shape. He designed and built a second home in the south western part of Virginia called Poplar Forest that is octagonal shaped. As he always had visitors at Monticello, he would often retreat to Popular Forest with, I believe, his daughters. Very interesting place to visit if you get a chance.

    1. Karen –

      You’re right that things aren’t always either/or. Rather, sometimes compromises are necessary. However, the important thing is to keep asking the questions so that we don’t sink into blind complacency.

      – Mary

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