Break Free from the Status Quo

Published: Jan 24, 2019
Modified: Mar 24, 2020

To create space for management innovation you will need to systematically deconstruct the management orthodoxies that blind you and your colleagues to new possibilities. Here’s how to get started.

Pick a big management issue like change, innovation, or employee engagement, and then assemble 10 or 20 of your colleagues. Ask each of them to write down 10 things they believe about the nominated problem. Have them inscribe each belief on a Post-it note. Then plaster the stickies on a wall and group similar beliefs together. If a belief seems ungroupable, put it off to the side for the moment. It’s the commonly held assumptions that require the greatest scrutiny. Since these beliefs seem noncontentious, they seldom get examined.

Let’s say the problem you picked was adaptability. You asked each of your colleagues to write down 10 deeply held beliefs about the nature of change in large organizations. After clustering the submissions, the three most commonly held beliefs turn out to be the following:

1. It takes a crisis to provoke deep change.
2. You need a strong leader to drive change.
3. Change starts at the top.

How do you challenge these beliefs? The dilemma, of course, is that they seem empirically true: It usually does take a crisis to change a big company. Most successful change programs are driven from the top, usually by a new CEO. Everyone knows these things are true—they are facts, not assumptions. So your colleagues are going to be nonplussed when you ask them to question these maxims. They’ll feel as if you’re asking them to speculate on whether gravity is really true or just a convention. And in a way, that’s exactly what you’re urging them to do.

Here’s what you need to tell them. To escape the straitjacket of conventional thinking, you have to be able to distinguish between beliefs that describe the world as it is, and beliefs that describe the world as it is and must forever remain. In 1900, it would have been accurate to say that human beings couldn’t fly, but it would have been wrong to say they would never fly. What kept humankind earthbound for so long wasn’t the law of gravity, but a lack of inventiveness. And so it is with management.

Not many of our management practices are grounded in natural law. While managers must contend with all the behavioral instincts that have been hardwired into human beings, this is not as much of a constraint as you might think. Reflect again on the way in which modern industry manufactured dutiful employees out of farmers, peddlers, and housemaids. It’s not human nature that limits the pace and scope of management, it’s our unexamined beliefs. Having explained this to your colleagues, you’re ready to move on.

Ask your associates which of their assumptions about change deserve to be challenged—which beliefs reflect a reality they wish could be otherwise. After mulling this question over, your team decides it’d like to test the notion that it takes a crisis to change a big company. Clearly, customers, employees, and shareholders would be better off if deep change was more often proactive and less often reactive. Now ask your teammates whether they can think of any counterexamples to the general rule that deep change is crisis-driven. Are there companies that have changed direction without having to go through some sort of near-death experience? If, after a few minutes, no one has offered a counterexample, you should move on to the next question.

Getting at the “Why”
“All right then,” you ask, “why does it take a crisis to provoke deep change? What, specifically, are the impediments to timely adaptation?” One of your colleagues ventures that denial is often the culprit. Heads nod in agreement. Another voice chimes in: “Denial is a law of human nature. We’re all ostriches sometimes.” Again there’s a murmur of assent. Five or six folks lean back in their chairs—well, that’s it: people are unnerved by disruptive change.

Simple as that. Only it’s not. Not by a long shot. This is where the work of deconstructing orthodoxies really begins—once you’ve elicited that first knee-jerk, can’t-be-helped explanation for the way the world is.

Your next question catches folks off-guard: “Is denial an infectious disease, like an outbreak of E. coli from a bad batch of spinach? Does the virus of self-delusion infect everyone in a company? Or are there usually some folks who manage to escape the bug, who understand all too well the potential dangers of sticking with the status quo?” Now people are thinking. Someone pipes up: “Yeah, there’s usually someone—usually a lot of people—who see the handwriting on the wall, but nobody pays attention to them.” Soon folks are sharing personal stories about prophets who went unheeded, and disasters that could have been averted but weren’t.

As the discussion heats up, your colleagues grab the initiative and start asking their own questions: “Why do prophets usually end up as martyrs?” “Why do the folks with 20/20 vision have to sit around waiting for top management to do something?” “Why are the visionaries writing position papers and blogs when they should be out inventing new business models?”

Suffice to say, if you encourage your teammates to keep asking “why,” they’ll eventually land on the real reason it takes a crisis to provoke big change: too much authority has been vested in too few people. When power is concentrated at the top, a few senior executives can hold the organization’s capacity to change hostage to their own willingness or ability to change. The veterans at the top built the current business model, or got promoted for perfecting it. Their careers, skills, and mental models are inextricably bound up with the status quo, and they can scarcely imagine an alternative. Not surprisingly, they will often ignore or discount information that casts doubt on the current strategy.

Now you’ve arrived at a fundamental truth about social systems: the more you consolidate power in the hands of a few senior leaders, the less resilient the system will be. (If you’re old enough, you’ll remember the Soviet Union.) Hitting on this insight energizes the discussion. “So there’s no law that says companies have to go through a crisis every five or ten years,” ventures one of your teammates. Another colleague chimes in: “Yeah, but if you want to avoid a painful turnaround, you can’t give top management a monopoly on setting strategy.” This prompts another interjection: “In today’s world it’s tough to keep a strategy evergreen. Maybe the top team would actually welcome the chance to share the burden.” “So what are we going to do?” someone asks. “How can we change this?” “How can we make our strategy process more bottom-up and less top-down?” Thus the journey of management innovation begins.

As the conversation unfolds, try to capture key points and post them to an internal Web site or circulate them by e-mail. As you broaden the conversation electronically, your peers will start to ask, “Why is our company run this way?” “Why can’t we do better than this?” “What are the alternatives?” As the contrarian spirit spreads, the potential for management innovation will grow.

Asking the Right Questions
Rooting out dogma is all about asking the right questions—repeatedly. I’ve found the following lines of attack to be helpful in getting beneath the surface of long-held management beliefs:
1. Is this a belief worth challenging? Is it debilitating? Does it get in the way of an important organizational attribute (like strategic adaptability) that we’d like to strengthen?
2. Is this belief universally valid? Are there counterexamples? If so, what do we learn from those cases?
3. How does this belief serve the interests of its adherents? Are there people who draw reassurance or comfort from this belief?
4. Have our choices and assumptions conspired to make this belief self-fulfilling? Is this belief true simply because we have made it true—and, if so, can we imagine alternatives?

These questions are your pickax. If you’re persistent, they’ll help you break through even the most impenetrable of management orthodoxies.

Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business School Press. Excerpt from The Future of Management by Gary Hamel. Copyright 2007 Gary Hamel. All rights reserved.