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.
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