The Slippery Slope of Not Asking Why

I’d like to think I’m good at challenging the status quo.  To get regular reality checks, I spend time with college kids creating for-profit and not-for-profit businesses aimed at solving wicked problems.  They truly challenge the status quo and it is, fortunately, invigoratingly contagious.

Sometimes (most of the time?), the status quo is so deeply engrained we don’t realize it – so deeply inherent in our worldview that when confronted with it, we view questioning it as heretical.  This hit home in the span of less than a week when 4 separate ‘events’ screamed Status Quo Alert at me:

  • In finishing Raj Patel’s, The Value of Nothing: How to Reshape Market Society and Redefine Democracy, one of our society and economy’s basic assumptions, the concept of private property, is challenged. Raj’s thesis is that the privatizing/enclosing of public/open spaces turned labor from being production for oneself to being an asset (human capital) for someone else. So, Why don’t we question if this concept still works in its current form, if it couldn’t be adapted to a new model, and what the consequences have been?
  • The fledgling entrepreneurs, social and ‘regular’ (for lack of a better word; I actually think it’s all social), I met during my “office hours” were trying to truly understand customers’ needs from the customers’ worldview – with their constraints, incomes, barriers and opportunities – instead of from the students’ perspective of ‘what’ these people might need.  So, Why do we assume that we know what’s best, that the way we view the world is either the ‘right’ way or the ‘best’ way?
  • My weekly article ‘catch-up’ included several on corporate culture and leadership that were all just common sense and the Golden Rule.  So,Why do we have to elevate basic decency in how we treat one another to great rules for leadership?  Has it gotten so bad that widely respected journals publish posts telling us to say thank you to employees, to behave consistently, to smile because it’s contagious? Where was I when these fundamentals of human kindness became leadership virtues?
  • Bitcoin is on a tear with it's value fluctuating as everyone tries to make sense of what it means. Last year, the ECB (European Central Bank) released its study of Bitcoin, a virtual currency and actually said, “The theoretical roots of Bitcoin can be found in the Austrian [sic] (Menger, Mises, Hayek) school of economics,” (pg. 22)!  Then they proceeded to say why Bitcoin, and its ilk, would never work.  Their assumptions are guided by increasingly irrelevant and outdated ideas instilling a need to protect the world where they think they have power (and seemingly no imagination).  The cracking of the Status Quo’s walls were loud and clear to many… except the ECB. So,Why do we assume that currencies are tied to nation-states, to physical boundaries?  We can see clearly today how the walls are crumbling.

My husband tells me I ask Why too often.  Why is how we learn, discover, and challenge the Status Quo.  In one of my first projects at Bell Labs, I was the system engineer on three different messaging services. Why did I have to create three different architectures for three different messaging services?  Ok, the media were different (voice, text, image) but simply tagging the media type in a header all the services understood meant one architecture, shared messages, and media conversion as necessary! Voila!Done and on to the next project! Result? Big revenues for AT&T and my patent on a plaque for me.

Kids ask Why all the time and we expect that from them.  At some point, it seems we stop questioning and expecting Whys. When we stop askingWhy, we risk the Status Quo becoming so entrenched that we accept it as the way it Has to be and can Only be.  So, this next week, try to ask Why just two times a day – give it a whirl and see what happens.  Next week, ask your team to ask Why twice a day and see what happens.  And the week after? You know the drill!

This originally appeared in Switch and Shift.

Strangulation Of The Status Quo - Lessons from the 19th Century

In light of the recent unrest in Turkey, Brasil and the ongoing effects of the Arab Spring, I thought this was worth reposting...

If you haven’t seen the [new] Les Misérables movie you should. It powerfully portrays many of today’s issues: poverty, inequality and inequity, the struggle of self-organized groups versus command-and-control and liberty to name a few. Most profoundly, it speaks to the overwhelming and dangerous hold of the status quo on our minds and souls.

The battle between the new and the status quo is epitomized in the relationship between Javert, a policeman ingrained the life of Law and Order, and Valjean, a reformed ex-con who through grace and freedom has become a just and caring businessman in the community. Javert, unable to receive Valjean’s grace and freedom, actually kills himself instead of accepting a world where compassion and understanding counterbalance the rule of Law, a world most of us prefer.

So what does this have to do with business? A lot. On first blush, the lesson is the stranglehold of the status quo binding us to the present, and past, so we are unable to see the benefits of anything different. The present may not even be great, but we know it and how to deal with it.

Change is scary, threatening. We will have to learn new things and maybe we won’t be able to. Then what? It also means risk, risk means failure and failure is punished. None of these options are good.

So what do we, our people, our organizations do? We shut down. We show up, do our jobs, follow policies and procedures and check our hearts, souls and even minds at ‘the door’. We know what that does to growth, profitability and purpose!

On a deeper level, it highlights the death throws of a binary world so many of us cling to: yes and no, either or, good and evil, America vs. the USSR.

The new world is grey. It requires integrating disparate ideas, accepting paradoxes, looking for the And Both instead of Either Or, combining things in new ways. . . which leads to freedom, to innovation and growth and solutions to real customer needs and wicked problems.

It leads to loosening some of the harsh, unjust shackles of the Law through Compassion. Let’s face it, it’s much easier to live in a black and white world where we know the rules, we know what’s expected, the probability of failure is much lower.

That binary world doesn’t exist anymore and actually, never did. It was an illusion that lasted a century. Increasingly, we define our jobs, blur lines of responsibility, integrate once discrete disciplines (e.g., design and engineering), and experiment and iterate instead of perfect. While a grey world may be scary to some, it unleashes innovation and new ways to realize profits that can create meaningful outcomes.

Javert’s Suicide Soliloquy shows the glaring self-destruction inherent in status quo’s black and white world – a world so stark that Javert views freedom as another chain (“hold dominion”) and chooses death:

What sort of devil is he [Valjean] to have me caught in a trap and choose to let me go free…

Vengeance was his and he gave me back my life!

Damned if I’ll live in the debt of a thief! Damned if I’ll yield at the end of a chase…

How can I now allow this man to hold dominion over me…

He gave me my life. He gave me my freedom…

And must I now being to doubt, who never doubted all these years?

The world I have known is lost in shadow

So what does this mean to us? Hopefully, none of us will hold so desperately to the status quo that’d we’d rather literally die than adapt. Make sure your organization's culture doesn't either.

This originally appeared in Tanveer Naseer's Blog

Is Innovation now Status Quo?

Heretical isn’t it? I’m just starting to wonder if some StatusQuo-itis isn’t seeping into innovation discussions.  Seems more people are sounding a bit more prescribed than experimental in their advice and counsel.  I hear more ‘should’, ‘ought’, ‘the’ than ‘could’, ‘can’, and ‘a’; more ‘best practices’ than ‘here’s a way’.

There are some great ways to do spur creativity and innovate, but I don’t think there is ‘the’ way.  One of the very freeing things about innovation is that it’s a continuous experiment; what works today may or may not work tomorrow (if you have kids, you know this well).  It’s good to innovate how you innovate!

I always get concerned when a vocabulary coalesces into jargon* and it seems like that’s happening with innovation.  The era of everything being prescribed, of best practices, are coming to an end.  While there are some absolutes, I believe success, intangible and tangible, will go to those who can experiment, learn, apply and iterate the fastest and most purposefully.

Do you agree? Am I over-reacting? Let me know your thoughts.  And, if you can, just I asked you to watch out for ‘but’ last week, this week, listen for ‘should’, ‘ought’ and ‘the’ - and when you hear it, challenge it, because, Innovation and Status Quo should truly be oxymorons.

*Jargon – Old French jargon “a chattering” (of birds) from mid-14th C “unintelligible talk, gibberish, chattering, jabbering” also from English gargle from which we get gargoyle! 

Status Quophiles and Quophobes

Ever know anyone who will explicitly say he/she doesn't think innovation is important? No! So listen carefully for the magic word - "but".   Some of you know how much I love to challenge the status quo so here's my theory: Status Quophiles see the glass as half empty and want to make sure it doesn't become totally empty.  Status Quophobes are Innovators - they see the half empty glass as half full, waiting to be filled up!  

I've been collecting some phrases I hear from Status Quophiles (SQ) and the rare responses from Innovators (I), Status Quophobes.  Do these sound familiar? If you can add any, please do so in the comments!

SQ: Could be a major breakthrough, but your predecessor tried that a while ago, and that’s why you’re here now.

I: Could be a major breakthrough, and we’ll support you in trying it.

SQ: That could work, but we risk not being able to get the coating on a reliable and consistent basis if the world blows up.

I: That would work, and we can diversify our coating suppliers to assure quality and price.

SQ: Wow, cool, but that’s going to be a problem for our customers.

I: Wow, cool, and that’s going to let us help so many more customers and markets than we can now!

SQAppreciate your enthusiasm and ideas, but once you’ve been around a bit longer and know how we do things here, you’ll understand the challenges involved.

I: Appreciate your enthusiasm and ideas, and the breath of fresh thinking and perspective is just what we need!

SQ: This makes sense in the long run, but remember, we are measured on quarterly results.

I: This makes sense in the long run, and we can show some benefits even in the short term by applying our learning early on.

SQ: Nice idea, but we have to recognize the sunk costs of our existing fixed assets.

I: Nice idea, and let’s face it, sunk costs are, well, sunk!       

SQWe should pursue this, but let’s make sure it’s 150% vetted and tested and has met all the criteria before we start the project, let alone release it, even for a beta.

I: We should pursue this, and figure out how to prototype and test as we go along to make sure we get it right.

SQ: Interesting, but things are going so well, we’re profitable and growing so we must be on the right track.

I: Interesting, and that will let us start adapting to our customers changing needs while we have the resources and loyalty.

Here's my challenge to you to try for just a few days.  Listen for the 'but' in meetings and discussions.  Count them.  Then, listen for the 'and' and count those?  Which do you hear more? And (ha!) what can you do to change that (perhaps starting with yourself!)?  Please share what you hear, your count of but & and, and what you can do to change it!  Learning is no good if its not shared!

Paradox of Innovation and Status Quo

As much as I love change, innovation, #RCUS (Random Collisions of Unusual Suspects per Saul Kaplan) and challenging the Status Quo, I realized how much the comfort and haven of some Status Quo means to me as we got settled at our place in Maine.  The familiar faces in our little grocery store and post office, seeing long-time friends, the same lobster boats and buoys in the harbour provide a sense of calm, certainty, stability that, paradoxically, frees me to challenge, change, and innovate.

Yet there is still constant change.  In Maine, it's in the water.  Several years ago, an old lobsterman had the most elaborate buoys: stripe of red, stripe of white, stripe of red with something different painted in the stripe of white every year such as a buoy, a lobster, and after 9/11, the American Flag. Our kids got one of his buoys every year.   One year, there were about half the number of his buoys in the bay.  When we saw him at the Co-Op, he informed us his wife had died that winter and he just wasn't up to it.  He looked frail.  The next year, his boat wasn't in the harbour and there were no buoys.  He had died that winter.  There were new boats and buoys in the harbour.  Death and renewal.

What does this have to do with innovation, business, anything? I think a lot on (at least) two levels:

  1. While we have to embrace the increasing velocity of change and uncertainty for meaningful, effective innovation, change for change's sake is not the goal.   Sometimes the way it is now is really ok.  We need to discern the difference and continually re-evaluate.  Nothing stays totally the same forever.  While the islands, shoals, and hidden rocks are still there, their contours have changed, perhaps ever so slightly, due to the tides, the weather - due to just being there.
  2. We need to start looking for subtle changes and patterns that provide enormous opportunities.  Most non-locals here in Pemaquid probably don't even notice the changes in lobster boats and buoys - but they are significant indicators of shifts (and generations).  While boats and buoys are tangible, many times the patterns are in the intangibles, which is harder to perceive (and measure).

So, I leave you with two challenges as you go on your summer vacations, kids baseball and soccer games, walks down the halls at work, visits to plants, boarding planes, even daily commutes:

  1. Identify the constants in your life, your work, that are working well and that aren't. Do they need to be changed? Do they provide the stability that allows innovation or do they impede it?
  2. Look for subtle patterns and changes - especially in places you don't normally look and think about what opportunities can arise from these.

Please feel free to share your learnings with your fellow readers either through comments here or on twitter at @dscofield or email me

Be a Heretic!! Innovate

For some reason, I’ve always been fascinated with the word “heretic”.  Perhaps it’s the Devil’s Advocate in me (oh! What a pun!).  Perhaps its because I love being ‘heretical.’  Perhaps its because being heretical is key to innovating.  And this word has been around for millennia!

We usually associate heretic with religion, namely, the Roman Catholic Church: Inquisition, burning people at the stake, etc.  However, the origin is secular; the Greek hairein - “to take” that becamehairetikós - “able to choose” from the verb hairesthai “to choose”.  At the end of 2nd Century A.D., the Latin version haereticus already meant a ‘heretic’ – someone whose beliefs were false or sacrilegious vis-à-vis the teachings of the Catholic Church.  Haereticus became heretique in Middle French andheretik in 13th Century Middle English.  Interestingly, by the late 14th Century (think Chaucer), heretik, in addition to the religious connotation, added back its original secular meaning “anyone who does not conform to an established attitude, doctrine, or principle.”

No, this isn’t a treatise on entomology or religious doctrine.  This is about innovation.  Innovation is about challenging the status quo, accepted doctrines and conventional viewpoints.  Fortunately today, innovators do not get burned at the stake, exiled to islands or made into slaves.  But, in established institutions, they may be shunned, ignored or even fired.

If you want your business and organization to grow and make a difference (and a profit!), you need to encourage your heretics.  You need to give them support, air cover, outlets for exploring ideas, and venues to be heard.  No, this is no longer the Age of Aquarius; it’s the Age of the Heretic!


Innovation requires Lens Shifting

A while ago, my friend Jackie Hutter and I did a workshop on Leading Indicators for Innovation from 2 aspects: 1) how can you look around you for leading indicators of areas ripe for innovation; and 2) what are leading indicators in your innovation process itself.

Both are important, the first is more ‘fun’ so we’ll discuss it first and save the 2nd for another post.  Jackie coined the phrase, “Lens Shifting” which made me thing of this:

These guys are all working on the same physical plane, but for one it’s flat, for another uphill and for another downhill. It depends where you’re standing.  They are all on the same physical plane, but they all have different viewpoints.  We view things from our own perspectives and biases. 

Why are some people so good at understanding, and leading, future trends, behavior? Think Oprah Winfrey, Steve Jobs, Warren Buffett.  How do they stay cutting edge year after year? Well, they seem to view the world differently, to ‘Lens Shift’.  They are curious about the world, life, work; they’re open-minded; they set their minds on an idea and go for it, even creating the trend itself;  they’re confident in their ideas and act;  they don’t care about being different, not conforming.  Some say they’re ‘fearless’ and ‘risk takers’ – perhaps, or perhaps they define fear and risk differently – risk = status quo, not the undefined opportunity.  Mainly, they exhibit connectedness – in terms of people (social network & capital) and the ability to connect things together, to see patterns and relationships that most don’t see.

Before my oldest child started crawling, I crawled around the house to ‘baby-proof’ it.  Wow! What a totally different perspective! It was amazing.  Try it, even if your kids are grown.  Start looking at the world around you that way –your world, your (current, potential, non-) customers’s worlds.  Imagine what it could be.  We call that the “Parallax View”: a viewpoint from which you can observe and study something/somebody from a new angle, gaining insights unavailable before. Imagine what could happen if you tried this?

Here are some ways to start.  Jeffrey Phillips encourages us to look at rituals, like shaving, and think about how we could reinvent them.  Jerry Sternin improved malnutrition in Vietnam by looking at Positive Deviants – at those who, despite the circumstances and everyone around them, were doing better.  Tony Hsieh talks about hiring lucky people, but luck isn’t totally accidental, it’s serendipitous, and luck breeds luck.

I bet you are already doing some of this but don’t realize it or use it as best as you could.  Your customers’ and their customers’ business drivers are your leading indicators!  There are indicators all around.  There is the “Lauder Lipstick Indicator”, created after 9/11. There are job boards, real estate transactions, zoning permits that tell you the types of jobs, land & buildings, special capabilities your customers, or competitors, are looking at.  By reading, watching, listening, observing, you can find many leading indicators, without spending big money on market studies, that can help you provide very valuable solutions (and business models) to your customers.  Just give it a try.

So what are some of your leading indicators? Can you share them?

p.s. if you’re interested, you can get a copy of our workshop here and stay up on leading indicators!