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Don't Trust the Status Quo

By Jeffrey Baumgartner

I have never really trusted the status quo. Doing something, buying a product or behaving in a particular manner simply because most people do it that way is not logical to me. I need a better reason. Perhaps this is why people tell me I am eccentric (I am not really, I just act more on logic than by following the status quo; although not everyone seems to get my logic). In part, I blame my father for this. He was an exceptionally intelligent man born on a farm in Iowa. Early on he knew this was farming life in a small town was not for him and so he studied hard and became an engineer. Like most engineers, he was very logical and a problem solver at heart. Most likely, he was high functioning autistic (also known as Asperger's Syndrome), though he was never tested for the condition.

When my brothers and I were growing up, my father never compared us to each other or our peers. When I did poorly at school, he told me I was capable of much better; he never told me about a friend's child who got straight As. When I grew my hair long, he did not compare me to other boys who had short hair. He just told me to get a hair cut! If I went out wearing an unusual outfit, he would never tell me that no one wears clothes like that. But, if I went out without a jacket on a cold day, he'd ask me if I was warm enough.

When, in University, I decided to study arts rather than maths, he did not compare me to others who studied practical subjects; he worried that I would have trouble earning a good income (and, he was right!)

My father also prohibited boasting, which is essentially comparing yourself to the status quo and claiming superiority. I believe that was in part because he came from a poor background and worked his was to a comfortable background. He knew what it was like to poor and struggling to get by. It may also be related to his Asperger's; people with this condition tend to be very concerned about fairness.

Having been brought up not to compare myself to others and not being questioned when I diverged from social norms, I never learned to consider the status quo as being a reason to behave in a certain way. This does not mean that I believe the status quo is always wrong. On the contrary, it is usually right. There is usually a reason certain behaviours and actions become status quo and usually that reason has to do with logic.

For example, here in continental Europe, cars drive on the right side of the road. That is the status quo and although it seems an arbitrary choice, not following the status quo and driving on the left side of the road in traffic would at best slow my journeys down and at worst be dangerous. Those are to my mind excellent reasons to conform.

Side Effects Include Creativity

An interesting side effect of this upbringing has been a creative mind. Because I tend to question the status quo, I see things differently from followers of the status quo and offer suggestions that are not necessarily normal in the eyes of society. Yet those ideas have a logical foundation − at least the ideas I share do. The really weird, overly-imaginative ideas I keep to myself. That's pretty much what creativity is about: coming up with new ideas outside the realm of the status quo.

Why should you care about any of this? Well, most people tend to be more conscious of the status quo than I am. So, statistically, you likely to be better about following the status quo than I am. This is not a judgment. Neither following nor not trusting the status quo is a better approach to life. Indeed, my path has had consequences, not least of which being that it often leaves me feeling a social outsider.

Corporate Status Quo

Companies tend to follow the status quo too. Having worked internationally, I can tell you that a meeting room in Saudi Arabia looks and feels remarkably like a meeting room in Bangkok, Madrid or New York. Open plan offices have become the status quo not because they confer any real advantages, but because lots of companies have them. In fact, research has made it clear that open plan offices are bad for all kinds of reason, including they are districting, lead to distrust, reduce co-operation and make people anti-social. Nevertheless, companies embrace open-plan offices because that's the status quo.

This makes no sense to me.

Likewise, when you need creative ideas from your team, you run a brainstorm because, well, that's what businesses do. It's the status quo when it comes to corporate creativity. Never mind that brainstorming (following the rules laid down by Alex Osborn more than a half century ago) has been shown to be detrimental to creativity. Most businesses prefer not to let logic and reason interfere with following the status quo.

Not Conducive to Creativity

If your company follows the status quo, you are not following a path that encourages either creativity or Innovation. If your actions are based on conforming to the status quo, rather than defying the status quo, you are not doing anything novel. You are not standing out as different. You are not sufficiently questioning your actions, decisions, products or services. This is the opposite of innovation.

Fortunately, such behaviours are easy to change.

Products

Even products conform to the status quo. Unless you look carefully, there is not much to differentiate the look of a Samsung, Apple, Wiko or any other smart phone. Randomly select a product from the supermarket shelf and it is likely that all similar products are packaged similarly. If the world suddenly became black and white, you would struggle to see much difference at all between various brands of ketchup, shampoo or toothpaste.

And this is where truly innovative products stand out. They diverge from the status quo and often break the status quo. Ten years ago, Nokia was the world's most successful mobile phone maker, phones had numeric keyboards and they were mostly used for phone calls and exchanging SMS text messages. Young people bent over their phones were tapping out SMSs to friends.

Apple diverged from that in a big way with their first iPhone. It broke the old status quo and defined a new status quo.

Ten years ago, if you were in a city and wanted door to door transportation, you hailed or called a taxi. That was the status quo. In those days, you would not have stopped drivers in the street offering to pay them to take you to your destination. Then Uber came along and essentially allowed you to solicit paid rides from people using their personal cars. Lyft and others offer similar products. They broke the status quo.

Processes

Many years ago, car makers and other manufacturers designed products and then ordered parts from their suppliers. Suppliers delivered those parts in bulk and they were stored in warehouses until needed. That was the status quo, but it brought costs: supplies had to be paid for long before the end products were sold. Warehouse space needed to be bought or rented and maintained. Suppliers' expertise was seldom exploited. There was less flexibility. If you made a change to the product, you would need to order new parts, get them delivered and stored before you could implement the change. That might also mean disposing of parts not needed following the change.

Toyota had a better way: just in time inventory. Rather than have warehouses full of supplies that might not be needed for some time, why not have supplies delivered when you need them? Not only would this reduce inventory costs, but it meant that you could change production quickly if the market demanded it. If someone on the factory floor had an idea about improving production, it could be implemented faster. Moreover, suppliers become more involved with Toyota, offering their own innovative ideas on how to improve manufacturing. Indeed, if you look in any Toyota factory, especially in Japan, a number of the people you see working there are not Toyota employees. They are suppliers' employees working alongside Toyota employees.

This process improves efficiency, makes it easier to innovate and allows companies to change faster. Toyota broke the status quo and today many companies have implemented just in time management.

Question the Status Quo

The lesson to learn here is a simple one: if you want to be more innovative, you need to trust the status quo less, question it often and refuse to accept it as a logical argument for a particular behaviour, action or style. If your company has an open plan office, ask why it has one. If the answer is: because all businesses today have open plan offices, that is not a good reason. If the answer is because open plan offices facilitate accidental meetings and collaboration, read the research and design office space that really does facilitate accidental meetings and collaboration. In doing so, you may diverge from that status quo, but you will facilitate accidental meetings and collaboration; you will have happier employees and you will see higher productivity. Your company will almost certainly innovate better too. That's a rather good reward for being different, isn't it?

Identify the status quo associated with your products and services. Identify why you follow the status quo. Why is your product shaped the way it is? What other shapes might it be? Why is it the size that it is? Colour? How do people use it? Why? What are the alternatives. As you ask these questions, the answer, "Because that's the way it is," or "Because everyone does it that way," is not an acceptable answer. If there is not logical reasoning for a particular aspect of your product, consider alternatives and test them with logic and reason.

 After the second world war, it was believed that Americans would never buy the small cars that were popular in Europe. Why? Because, well, Americans always buy big cars. That was the status quo and American car makers adhered to it. Then in the 1950s Volkswagen introduced the Beetle to the US and it was a hit. Later, Toyota and other Japanese cars entered the American market and took such a huge market share that American manufactures moaned to the US government who moaned to the Japanese government until a quota was agreed to in order to limit the number of small Japanese cars could be imported to the US.

The French would never eat American fast food because, well, the French prefer more sophisticated food. Why? Well, because that's the way the French are. It's the status quo. Nevertheless, McDonald's launched there and today France is the company's second biggest market after the USA.

Don't Trust the Status Quo

I am not asking you to reject the status quo. I am warning you not always to trust it, especially when it comes to the way your business works and the products you sell. If you fail to question the status quo but one of your competitors does, it could cost you dearly. A decade ago, Nokia was the leader in mobile phone sales and innovation. Indeed, early issues of Report 103 occasionally used Nokia as a case study in innovation. But they trusted the status quo. Apple questioned it. Now who is the innovative leader in the sector? Where is Nokia?

Don't let this happen to your company. Don't trust the status quo.

R103/20170615

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Jeffrey Baumgartner
Bwiti bvba

Erps-Kwerps (near Leuven & Brussels) Belgium