Trudging On With The Status Quo

A few weeks into my first job after college, a handful of us were invited by my boss to scout locations for an upcoming event for an important group of clients. As she described her vision for the selected spot on the scenic island and discussed the potential of it, my boss brushed and swatted at her pant legs in a failed attempt to appear in complete control of the moment. My colleagues exchanged awkward glances, but remained timidly silent – classic Emperor’s New Clothes syndrome. Apparently I was the only idiot to see the ants.

“Hey, Roberta,” I called out. “You’re standing on an anthill.”Ants carrying an elephant

She glared at me as she stepped off of the anthill, without missing a beat in describing her vision and how perfect the spot was. Now, I’m pretty sure Roberta did not deliberately step onto that anthill. Once aware, she downplayed it. Perhaps fearful that her status would be somehow diminished by acknowledging and reacting too quickly to her misstep. Whatever the psychology, she was bitten unnecessarily – and my invitation to the event mysteriously disappeared.

I have since witnessed too many metaphoric anthills to count: unnoticed or ignored inefficiencies that carry off hundreds of times their own weight in time, profits, and employee morale. And I think to myself ‘forget’ you, Roberta – just before I speak up.

An unfortunate fact of human nature is that we often avoid action to change our condition even in the face of evidence that change would improve our situation. The fear of loss of face or control is a powerful inhibitor of action to change our condition. There are also institutional inhibitors of change. It is a widespread misconception that in business, sins of commission (doing something) are punished more severely than sins of omission (doing nothing). Maybe you’ve heard or said, ‘This is how we’ve always done things.’ If the way you’ve always done things (status quo) relies on spreadsheets, information silos and email, ask yourself this: Would I choose the status quo, if it were not the status quo?

A few follow up questions may be helpful in framing your response:

  • Do I view the status quo as my only alternative?
  • Are my goals best served by the status quo?
  • Am I exaggerating the effort, cost, or emotional reaction to change?
  • Have I considered future situations in evaluating the status quo vs. the proposed change?
  • Do I view continuing the status quo as a safe and neutral act?

The decision to avoid or delay making a decision is not a neutral act. It is not always a safe act. It is rarely an act of leadership. Ralph, a kindred spirit and veteran Projects Manager for a major provider of oilfield services to the international oil and gas industry, recognized that when he reached out to me for help:

For several years now I have suggested to a succession of Directors and VP’s that our Enterprise Management System (EMS) is not the correct tool when it comes to management of projects, particularly larger projects. The tools available to Project Managers within the projects part of the business are a cobbled together set of cellular software packages that people have worked hard to get aligned over the years, and are understandably protective of. However – this is not a system and making it work after a fashion burns uncountable hours and the inefficiencies are legion. If we are to succeed going forward we absolutely must fix this.

Ralph had the character to challenge the status quo and to win; and his company is grateful to him for it.

Now ask yourself:

  • Is my organization reliant on spreadsheets, file servers, and email?
  • When would be the appropriate time to change that?

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