We are looking for an expression that captures this idea:

When someone tries to adapt an old way of doing something, holding on to the original core of their process, in a futile way, instead of discarding that approach and trying something novel.

  • 1
    Perhaps 'living in the past' is an appropriate term? Someone whose mind is focused on what was once great, ignoring present context which should influence the way something is done.
    – user24615
    Dec 17, 2013 at 5:45
  • Seems like the Einstellung Effect: en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Einstellung_effect Dec 18, 2013 at 6:50

14 Answers 14


In the software company I work for, we call that:

"paving the cow path"

That's when a client wants to use the software but doesn't want to change any of their old, established practices that the software may streamline for them because they or their staff are resistant to change.

On the website AgileConnection.com, Jim Highsmith offers this definition:

Summary: In the IT world, "paving cow paths" means automating a business process as is, without thinking too much about whether or not that process is effective or efficient. Often business process automation initiatives require figuring out entirely new ways of doing business processes–impossible prior to automation (for example, work flow automation and digital image processing)–defining more effective and efficient process highways. In this week's column, Jim Highsmith warns that when we pave the cow paths and ignore the highways, we do a disservice to our customers.

  • 4
    But cow paths do work. And tarmac may not yet have been invented. This answer is fine for OP's restatement, but doesn't address the 'futile' / 'once worked' aspect in the title. The terms for the hidebound 'someone' are easier (eg 'dinosaur'. Dec 16, 2013 at 19:49
  • Actually, @EdwinAshworth, IMO, it does address the "futile/once worked" aspect because I see it all the time where someone tries to futilely use a new technology to accomplish something exactly as it has been done in the past - and once worked. While it may continue to work that way, it is far less efficient than abandoning that cow path and forging new paths with the new technology. Dec 16, 2013 at 19:55
  • Yes - I think I've got a problem with the title: '. . .trying to futilely apply. . .' doesn't make much sense. '. . .trying without success to apply old methods that once worked' or '. . .stubbornly refusing to consider possible new and improved methods' make sense, but mean different things. Dec 16, 2013 at 20:02
  • 1
    "Paving the cow-paths" isn't a negative, in my experience. It means 'looking at what already works, rather than inventing something from scratch'. That doesn't have a value judgment on it, I don't think - it's as often valuable as it is limiting. A nice illustration is when you see worn footpaths in a busy public lawn - people ignore the straight 'planned' paths around the edges, and take the direct route across.
    – Beejamin
    Dec 17, 2013 at 0:38
  • 1
    I don't like this one because it doesn't actually match what the OP wants. Paving a cow path doesn't mean "futilely trying to use an old way which doesn't work any more". Instead it means "accepting that your beautiful path you laid isn't wanted by people, who instead want to walk right across the field". Dec 18, 2013 at 12:25

The best term I've heard used for that situation is "Cargo Cult".

The term cargo cult, as an idiom, originally referred to aboriginal religions which grew up in the South Pacific after World War II. The practices of these groups centered on building elaborate mock-ups of airplanes and military landing strips in the hope of summoning the god-like airplanes that had brought marvelous cargo during the war.

The late Nobel laureate Richard Fenynman popularlized the term for Science done that way in one of his autobiographies, but it has been taken up by the programming community.

Cargo cult programming is a style of computer programming that is characterized by the ritual inclusion of code or program structures that serve no real purpose. Cargo cult programming is typically symptomatic of a programmer not understanding either a bug he or she was attempting to solve or the apparent solution (compare shotgun debugging, deep magic). The term 'cargo cult programmer' may also apply when an unskilled or novice computer programmer (or one not experienced with the problem at hand) copies some program code from one place and pastes it into another place, with little or no understanding of how the code works, or whether it is required in its new position.

It has apparently been used a couple of times in Economics too, to describe attempts to advance economies by blindly emulating observable features of other successful economies.

  • 2
    This isn't bad, but 'Cargo Culting' brings with it the implication that the person doing it doesn't understand the process they're using. That might be OK, or not - just an observation...
    – Beejamin
    Dec 17, 2013 at 0:40
  • 1
    @Beejamin - Correct. Or at least they don't understand the difference between a cause and an effect in the old process.
    – T.E.D.
    Dec 17, 2013 at 15:46

Jesus would call it "putting new wine into old wineskins," or repairing an old and threadbare garment with a brand new patch, neither of which is a good idea.

As for the first analogy, here's something of historical interest (perhaps) which applies quite nicely to your question. It's from a sister website on the Stack Exchange called biblical hermeneutics beta, and the paraphrase was submitted by "metal" today:

"Summarizing Hastings Dictionary of Christ and the Gospels entry on wine bottles:

In ancient Israel, the grapes were pressed in the winepress and left in the collection vats for a few days. Fermentation starts immediately on pressing, and this allows the first 'tumultuous' (gassy) phase to pass. Then the must [that is, the word which denotes the crushed grapes, skins, seeds, stems, and juice, altogether] was put in clay jars to be stored, or into wineskins if it was to be transported some distance.

The wineskins were partially tanned goat skins, sewn at the holes where the leg and tail had been. The skins were filled with must (partially fermented wine) from the opening at the neck and then tied it off.

If one puts freshly pressed must directly into the skin and closes it off, the tumultuous stage of fermentation would burst the wineskins, but after this stage, the skins have enough stretchiness to handle the rest of the fermentation process. However, skins that have already been used and stretched out ('old wineskins') cannot be used again since they cannot stretch again. If they are used again for holding wine still in the process of fermenting ('new wine'), they will burst."

In like manner, people who are resistant to new ideas or to a new paradigm, are reluctant to let go of the "tried and true" paradigm and embrace the "untried and untrue"--perhaps even needlessly revolutionary--new paradigm. The "revolutionary" heliocentric paradigm and the "old" geocentric paradigm of the planets is one example of how the new and the old conflict, sometimes for centuries, until one theory replaces the other and becomes the new status quo.

New wine needs new wineskins, and a new patch is not compatible with an old garment. The new and the old are like oil and water; they need an emulsifier. That emulsifier is the new idea, though combining the oil, the water, and the emulsifier requires a bit of vigorous shaking!

  • 2
    Ah, this is the expression that encapsulates 'what once was best practice is now not just old-fashioned but actually risky'. I'm guessing that's what OP wants. Fine answer. (Mind you, with sources like That . . .) Dec 16, 2013 at 20:46
  • here! here! a very fine answer indeed. Dec 16, 2013 at 21:30
  • This is an example of reusing objects, not processes. Also, the problem with old wineskins is not obvious. I'd suspect more people would interpret the phrase as meaning "don't try to put new wine in old bottles," meaning don't try to pass something off as better than it really is.
    – user9383
    Dec 16, 2013 at 23:31
  • 1
    @JonofAllTrades: I don't agree. By using these analogies, Jesus seems to be saying that his revolutionary teaching simply would not fit the old forms of Judaism. In other words, his message required a new paradigm, or frame of reference, not an old one, to accommodate its revolutionary nature. As for your "object-processes" distinction, Jesus used the objects (viz., new wine/old-versus-new wineskins, and old garment/new-versus-old patch) to illustrate two disparate processes of "doing religion." For better clarity, I recommend you read the teaching in context at Luke 5:36-39. Don Dec 17, 2013 at 0:51
  • @JonofAllTrades in an object oriented programming language, a process is an object.
    – MDMoore313
    Dec 17, 2013 at 14:09

I would be likely to describe that person as dyed-in-the-wool. Someone who is dyed-in-the-wool has very deep-seated opinions and is very unlikely to change them or try something that may challenge their beliefs. In the scientific research industry, we use that expression to describe some researchers who continue to rely on antiquated and outdated analysis techniques, ignoring faster, more reliable and more comprehensive modern techniques (even though some of these have been around for about 30 years).


Its all very well saying cargo cult and paving the cow path to colleagues who work in the field of computing, they ought to be familiar with these terms. But to someone like me? Your typical average user, someone who has learnt and memorised a particular procedure which has always worked in the past, will that person understand those expressions? I've never heard of them, and to me, they are not self explanatory. I needed to read their definitions.

Again, if you need an expression to use with employees or colleagues those two will do fine. If not, may I suggest the following:

That process is well past its prime

When an object (or even a person) is past its prime we understand it to mean that its best performance belongs to the past, that it no longer as effective as it used to be. The listener should interpret the procedure as being old, inadequate, and past its peak.


That procedure is outdated

That course of action has seen its day

Wiktionary usage notes on to have seen one's day I thought were quite interesting

(idiomatic, of persons, things, ideas, etc.) To be at the point in a life cycle or career of no longer being useful or effective; to be worn-out.

To have seen better days and to have seen one's day have similar meanings. However, to have seen one's day may indicate that the subject is completely worn-out and of no use whatever, while to have seen better days may indicate that the subject is not fully worn-out and still has some functionality even if it is well past its peak condition.

  • A fair point. However, if dealing with the vocabulary-challenged, I'd probably just go with "Luddite". It not perfect, but close enough, and much more widely understood. All these terms you show say to me "You need to change just for change's sake". That kind of attitude will just make your typical "Luddite" dig in harder.
    – T.E.D.
    Jan 9, 2014 at 22:24
  • @T.E.D. I'm not sure I understand. You would call an outdated procedure luddite or you would call the person hesitant to try something novel, a luddite? If it is the second, then it's hardly a complimentary term. I think if something is "past its prime", it actually gives the client the perfect excuse to be more open to new ideas and approaches. :)
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jan 9, 2014 at 22:36

"Fighting yesterday's war." is sometimes used to mean that you are still trying to address a new problem in an old way.


You could use die-hard.

From Google,

noun: die-hard
1. a person who strongly opposes change or who continues to support something in spite of opposition.
"diehard traditionalists"

This expression can be used in general, for example: "he's a die-hard Matrix fan," or "she is a die-hard fan of Harry Potter."

It sounds even more right in IT-related stuffs, for example,

He's a die-hard thumb-typist.
Damkerng is a die-hard Tcler.
He is also a die-hard Lisper and a die-hard Perl monk too.
John is another die-hard command-line fan.


I like the term Flogging a dead horse. Although, according the the Wikipedia, it has more to do with conversation than with business practices. However, I think it conveys the right feeling of futility.

Another possible word is obsolete.

  • I've never heard anyone say "Flogging a dead horse". I'm thinking it has more or less been replaced with "Beating a dead horse". Still, a +1 from me.
    – Jacobm001
    Dec 17, 2013 at 18:03

Shoe-horning is a pretty general term that could work - it's not specific to processes, but it does mean 'forcing something to fit where it doesn't really fit'.

You could use it like 'Try a fresh approach instead of shoe-horning your old processes'.


The term old school can be used in that fashion

Characteristic of a style, outlook, or method employed in a former era, remembered either as inferior to the current style, or alternately, remembered nostalgically as superior or preferable to the new style, the older denoting something that would be considered out of date or out of fashion to some, but as such, is considered by others as cool and hip.

Note that, while some would use it in a pejorative fashion, the term can also be used to suggest something is retro-chic.


In education, the phrase saber-tooth curriculum is often used to refer to outmoded approaches and techniques that are desperately clung to despite their obsolescence. This reference comes from a tongue-in-cheek book written in 1939 by Peddiwell decrying academic athereosclerosis.

  • 1
    Just to clarify one of my favorite phrases, the phrase old school could also be used as a compliment.
    – MDMoore313
    Dec 17, 2013 at 14:11

Maybe the terms are too broad, but what about traditional or old-fashioned?


Douglas Hofstadter coined a great (and geeky sounding) term for something very like the situation you describe which has come to be used in philosophy by prominent people including Dan Dennett:

sphexish (also sphexishness)

The term is mainly used to describe mechanistic behaviors, even if they appear complex or even thoughtful. It is named for a genus of wasp in which such behaviours have been studied. The common name of these wasps is digger wasp. From the Wikipedia article:

Some writers in the philosophy of mind, most notably Daniel Dennett, have cited the behavior of this animal for their arguments about human and animal free will.

Some Sphex wasps drop a paralyzed insect near the opening of the nest. Before taking provisions into the nest, the Sphex first inspects the nest, leaving the prey outside. During the inspection, an experimenter can move the prey a few inches away from the opening. When the Sphex emerges from the nest ready to drag in the prey, it finds the prey missing. The Sphex quickly locates the moved prey, but now its behavioral "program" has been reset. After dragging the prey back to the opening of the nest, once again the Sphex is compelled to inspect the nest, so the prey is again dropped and left outside during another stereotypical inspection of the nest. This iteration can be repeated again and again, with the Sphex never seeming to notice what is going on, never able to escape from its programmed sequence of behaviors. Dennett's argument quotes an account of Sphex behavior from Dean Wooldridge's Machinery of the Brain (1963). Douglas Hofstadter and Daniel Dennett have used this mechanistic behavior as an example of how seemingly thoughtful behavior can actually be quite mindless, the opposite of free will (or, as Hofstadter described it, sphexishness).

In addition to this seemingly instinctive and programmed behavior, the Sphex has been shown, as in some Jean Henri Fabre studies, not to count how many crickets it collects for its nest. Although the wasp instinctively searches for four crickets, it cannot take into account a lost cricket, whether the cricket has been lost to ants or flies or simply been misplaced. Sphex drags its cricket prey towards its burrow by the antennae; if the antennae of the cricket are cut off, the wasp would not think to continue to pull its prey by a leg.

  • 1
    That is fascinating all around!
    – Beejamin
    Dec 19, 2013 at 4:40

Albert Einstein defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

  • 1
    Clearly Einstein wasn't an engineer. This is my #3 debugging strategy! Try it again, see if it works this time. Dec 18, 2013 at 11:56

From my own memory, the phrase, "That's old hat" may be applicable here.

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