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How to challenge the status quo

a man is thinking about how to challenge the status quo

“Status quo” is a Latin phrase that essentially means “existing state of affairs.”

While it’s often applied in a broader political or sociological context, in a work and leadership context the idea of “challenge the status quo” means shaking things up.

When you are challenging the status quo at work, then, it’s typically a change management process where you’re trying to reach some type of new end state. This takes a lot of different forms, normally “re-orgs,” but it can happen at a more granular level as well. 

But: even a tiny bit of power changes the brain in massive ways.

In particular, we start to mentalize other people as concepts -- rather than people with specific goals and real emotions. This partially happens because with some power, we process others through a more lateral region of the prefrontal cortex, known for planning, goal setting and conceptual thinking -- with less activation of medial networks that are known to be central for thinking about people’s past, present and future, and considering people as social entities in a complex network. 

That’s a fancy way of saying that it’s hard to challenge the status quo at work because the people in power have a natural tendency to do things that retain their power, and challenging the status quo usually isn’t one of those things. 

Table of contents
Why should we challenge the status quo?
An employee’s core issues challenging the status quo
Why are we, as leaders, afraid to challenge the status quo?
How can leaders successfully challenge the status quo?
What if a leader feels threatened by efforts to challenge the status quo?
How does Fingerprint for Success frame these issues?

Why should we challenge the status quo?

But we also know all organizations have to eventually change and grow, both to meet the demands of their customers but also the shifting employee base they have -- and that’s going to become a bigger issue in the next 3-5 years as more organizations embrace a “hybrid” mix of on-premise work and remote employees. Wharton has also spoken of a “network revolution,” noting that for generations, most companies were “asset-builders.” Now the most successful companies are “network orchestrators,” with the reason being fairly simple:

Physical things do not scale quickly, easily or cost effectively. Building the U.S. interstate highway system took 35 years and an estimated $425 billion (in 2006 dollars). In contrast, Facebook grew to 500 million users in a little more than six years. Digital technology and networks make all the difference.

You see companies attempting to pivot their business model all the time these days. We even have an entire category of discussion around it: “digital transformation.” It’s impossible for most companies to get there without challenging the status quo. Even for a company to do a relatively simple part of digital transformation, such as cloud adoption as opposed to on-premise document storage, someone in the organization needs to step up and challenge the status quo. It’s one of the only ways that change can happen among a group of people.

All this said, how do you challenge the status quo? We’ll begin by looking at the employee perspective, then move to the leader perspective. 

An employee’s core issues challenging the status quo

In 2016, Harvard Business Review did some interesting research on challenging the status quo at work, written by a former marketing executive and a former deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency. They found five reasons why employees fail at challenging the status quo at work:

  • Failure to prioritize ideas
  • Going at it solo
  • Bomb in the pitch meeting
  • Giving up too soon
  • You ignore danger signals

These all make logical sense. Executives and senior decision-makers are busy people, and if you don’t prioritize ideas they need to consider first, nothing will resonate. Going at it solo is not a good way to challenge the status quo; if you lack political and social capital at work, you can just be dismissed in that context. Presentations and pitches are hard for many of us, but if you bomb a pitch meeting, the ideas you were attempting to use to challenge the status quo probably won’t resonate much. 

Giving up too soon is a common problem; to change a large organization is roughly equivalent to turning around an oil tanker. It takes time. And, finally, ignoring danger signals. Remember what we said about the brain above? Some people in power simply don’t want to give up that power. There’s a case to be made for small wins when attempting to challenge the status quo organizationally. 

If those are the inherent issues when attempting to challenge the status quo, how can an employee push back on the normal state of affairs more effectively? Some ideas:

  • Tie the ideas to revenue: For better or worse, a senior decision-maker is likely to prioritize new ideas around revenue, even if the attempt at challenging the status quo might threaten them. The promise of a new market or opportunity might be a bigger draw, so focus and prioritize there.
  • Find a sherpa: Find someone in the organization with social clout and access to the top decision-makers, and tie your efforts at challenging the status quo to them.
  • More stories and more data: Find relevant stories about why upending the status quo would be a good thing for the organization. Humanize the presentation, but also have a bunch of data on what will happen at the new end state. Mix up the storytelling and the data to maximize how you reach decision-makers.
  • Keep pushing: You never know when something big might happen.
  • Also, though, know when to exit: Sometimes an attempt to challenge the status quo will keep running into the same brick walls, and you keep seeing the same danger signals, and you need to realize that it’s OK to gracefully bow out of a process periodically, and try another avenue for change. 

Why are we, as leaders, afraid to challenge the status quo?

We need to start here before getting into the solutions. 

Years ago, Harvard Business Review asked 1,000 employees across multiple industries “How often have you seen your leaders challenge the status quo?” 42% said never or almost never, 32% said sometimes, and 26% said fairly often or very often. Only 3% said always. 

Why is this?

As noted here:

  • Unwilling to be accountable
  • Afraid of risk
  • Don’t know how to get started
  • Lack organizational readiness
  • Not evolved as leaders

All these make sense too, and you’ve probably seen them (or experienced them first-hand) in organizations you’ve worked at. In fact, you may have seen this graphic at some point:

It posits that you need vision, skills, incentives, resources, and an action plan to create change, i.e. challenge the status quo. That’s the five-way intersection you need. Whenever one drops out, you create a problem. Lack of vision? Confusion. Lack of incentives? Resistance. So on and so forth. 

Now we know some of the roadblocks around challenging the status quo -- so how exactly can leaders do it?

How can leaders successfully challenge the status quo?

The first step is that you need to invite all perspectives into the discussion. This may seem complicated, especially in hybrid work models, and it may seem like “too many cooks in the kitchen.” But it can be done relatively simply, actually: create an ideas document -- not a tracking document or a process document -- but just an ideas document that says at the top what the current state of affairs is (status quo) and why it might be useful to navigate to a new end state (desired goal). 

Then, just let people have 3-5 days to put their ideas into that document. Anything goes. Any angle, perspective, approach, a new way of looking at it, etc. Then the leader of the team goes through that document and culls out some of the big themes and ideas in it, and those bigger themes and ideas become the first all-hands discussion of challenging the status quo. At that first meeting, as well, all the potential roadblocks should be laid out. Who could this approach threaten? Who might be an enemy of challenging the status quo without realizing it?

As this is happening, you also need to ask good questions -- generally important in a work setting anyway -- including:

  • Is there something that isn’t working?
  • Why isn’t it working?
  • How can we fix it?
  • Where do you see opportunities for improvement?

This time frame requires you to have the vision and ability to see a better future than

what currently is. Be inspired and imagine what the future would look like if

you made use of more simplified processes, new and better technology, were able to build a highly motivated team, had better relationships with your customers, and if you were able to improve the way they do business. Look at the end game; that of adding value to your client in a faster, cheaper and better way. Then identify the gaps between the end game and the current state. These gaps represent opportunities for improvements and opportunities for you to step up and lead.

At this point, some of the approaches we discussed above in the context of employees challenging the status quo will also apply to leaders attempting to challenge the status quo. Namely:

  • Prioritize the big ideas
  • Get the right allies
  • Keep honing the pitch to levels above
  • Know when it’s OK to take smaller wins instead of the whole-scale transformation

A lot of organizational change ultimately does come in fits and starts, as opposed to one massive change all at once. Think about how hard it is to make a massive change in your own life, and you’re just one person. Now try to do that for 200+ people, all of whom have different thoughts, feelings, attitudes, and emotions towards work. It usually will not happen overnight. Realize that sometimes, to use a baseball analogy, you need to settle for a single instead of a home run -- because the single still means you have a runner on the bases.

What if a leader feels threatened by efforts to challenge the status quo?

Indeed, this is a common problem. And some leaders will not budge off of it, because they want to protect their perch or fear taking a risk or whatever other reason comes to the forefront of their mind. In general, though, the best leaders -- whose organizations go the furthest, as well as their own careers -- know how to remove their own egos from the work. As Marc Andreessen, one of the most successful venture capital founders in modern history, has noted:

Why do we make those mistakes of omission so often? “It’s almost always because we have some theory for why something’s not going to work,” Andreessen says. “You develop an idea, and then you look for all the evidence that supports it and ignore all the evidence that disproves it. You get locked into your ideas.” That mindset works against you, Andreessen warns, because what didn’t work in the past might work now. “Just because MySpace didn’t reach Facebook levels of scale didn’t mean Facebook wouldn’t be able to. So you have to be ruthlessly open-minded and constantly willing to reexamine your assumptions,” Andreessen says. “You have to take the ego out of ideas, which is a very hard thing to do.”

It’s a hard thing to do, absolutely. But take the ego out of the work, and the end results can be better. Maybe a successful attempt at challenging the status quo will shift your position and perch initially, but within a year it might make you a bigger rock star in the organization. Be a change agent and a change-driven leader, and while it can be scary, it can also be an amazing ride.

How does Fingerprint for Success frame these issues?

We have three core assessments that speak to your ability, individually and organizationally, to challenge the status quo:

  • Status quo bias (logical, right?): means you value routine, consistency, and stability over disruptive idealism and constant change. You’re happy to assimilate new information with what you already know to make future plans.
  • Incremental change means you’ll approach change with a preference for gradual, incremental improvement and development.
  • Pioneering means you like variety, radical changes, and the challenge of bringing new ideas and methods to your organization.

These traits will help you understand which team members have more of a penchant for the status quo, slow change, and rapid change. A mix of these team members on new projects, new products, and attempts at challenging the status quo can bring a variety of perspectives that might get you exactly where you need to end up. 

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