Everything has an origin. Don’t be afraid to question it.

Posted on October 31, 2022.

I was speaking with a friend last week and she used the phrase, “gird your loins” in our conversation. I’d heard this phrase before and had a rough idea that it meant, “prepare yourself for a tough task ahead.” Honestly though, I wasn’t sure. So, I looked it up. Sure enough, I was right. Girding your loins means to prepare yourself, mentally in most cases, for a tough challenge ahead. Ok, great. But what does “gird” mean? And what does it have to do with “loins.” 

Lucky for us we have Google. A quick search revealed this article and illustration on what the origin is of the phrase and then, in the literal biblical sense, how one would quite literally gird up your loins. It turns out that “loins” were the tunics men wore during biblical times. These long flowing garments kept them cool but also got in the way of doing hard work or, in some cases, doing battle. Changes of clothes were rare so the people of that time had to wrap the garment around themselves in such a way that it allowed freer movement and ease of maneuvering. In the most literal sense, they girded up their loins (check out the illustration in the link above). 

Everything comes from somewhere

We’re all building on top of other people’s work. The reasons we work a certain way, use specific phrases or comply with expected behavior are based on what others have done before us. As new people join the workforce they’re taught these ways of working until eventually they become “the way we’ve always done things.” These behaviors become the expected reactions and those who don’t comply are seen, at best, as rebels and, at worst, as troublemakers.

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Origin stories should be questioned

When pushed, most folks won’t know why the organization works in these explicit ways. It’s the way they were taught to work. As our ways of working evolve along with technology and customer needs, it’s worth examining the origins of these policies. If the rationale still makes sense in today’s context, great. Keep it as is. However, if today’s realities don’t align with the original reasons for a corporate policy or practice, it’s our responsibility to challenge it. 

In the case of “girding your loins”, there is a connection between the original intent of the phrase and its current usage. But, in other cases, the original context for doing something or behaving a certain way no longer makes sense. We work differently today than we did just five years ago. If you’re working with policies that are older than that, odds are there are many opportunities to change your org’s ways of working for the better. 

Ask why…as many times as you need

Lean practice has made famous the “5 Whys” technique – ask “Why?” five times to get to the root of the problem. At the risk of coming across as a 3-year old, this technique can start shedding light on your company’s traditional practices. If working through a series of conversations designed to reveal the origin story of a specific practice doesn’t yield an explicit reason for its existence, you have an opening to question whether you could iterate and modernize it. In fact, I would argue that it’s your responsibility to challenge it (politely and with an understanding of why it’s there in the first place). If our goal is to build agile, responsive organizations we have to take every opportunity to retrospect on existing practices and, if they don’t make sense anymore, improve them.