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How Status Quo Bias Can Kill Innovation

By Jeffrey Baumgartner

Status quo bias is an irrational desire that all normal humans have. It is a desire to keep things pretty much as they are; to avoid changing things. It is irrational in the sense that the bias exists even when there is no evidence that keeping things the same is a better outcome than change. Nevertheless, substantial psychological research has empirically demonstrated that status quo bias is commonplace among us humans (PDF).

This is not a good thing for innovation which inevitably involves change. Moreover, it may explain why so many organisations find it easy to generate lots of ideas, but difficult to put the more creative ideas into practice (in other words, to innovate): the average human manager when faced with approving an idea that will result in significant change in operations is all too likely to find reasons not to approve the idea. The manager faced with a choice of several ideas ranging from incremental improvement to significant change is more likely to choose incremental improvement. It's not her fault. It's at least partly the result of status quo bias

Status quo bias may also explain why some companies innovate constantly, while others struggle to maintain a process of continual improvement. In companies where innovation is the norm, it becomes the status quo -- and not innovating is something to be avoided!

I believe status quo bias is one reason why brainstorms and crowdsourcing initiatives seldom result in notable innovation. With dozens, hundreds or even thousands of ideas to choose from, managers can select ideas that do not require substantial change. When voting is available in these ideation tools, incremental improvement ideas tend to receive the most votes -- allowing managers to reinforce the legitimacy of their decisions as popular. However, the votes and decisions in such a scenario are more likely to be the result of status quo bias than of any analysis of creativity or innovation potential!

This is not to say that status quo bias affects every manager's decision nor every brainstorm. Nevertheless, it is doubtless a negative factor in any innovation programme. And if you are overseeing an innovation programme, you should be aware of the effect this cognitive bias and the negative effect it may be having.

What Can You Do About It?

The first thing you can do is be aware that status quo bias exists and is a part of human nature. It may be irrational, but it exists in all sane people: even you and me. And you must use this knowledge in your innovation process.

If you are trying to encourage true innovation in your company or business unit, consider establishing a permanent evaluation criteria of "Does this idea veer significantly from the status quo?" and only implement ideas where the answer is "yes". If you use some kind of stage gate or automated process for reviewing ideas. Be sure that they system gives points to ideas that veer from the status quo, rather than the other way around.

On the other hand, if you are trying to sell a potential breakthrough innovation that will result in change, bear in mind that status quo bias is one of the challenges you will face. It is something you should address when selling the idea. For instance, you might demonstrate that although it may seem that the idea will cause great internal disruption, in fact the change will not be that great and most people will continue working as usual. Such reassurance may help people, who need convincing, to overcome their status quo bias.

Most importantly, put yourself in your colleagues' shoes. Think about how you would feel if a colleague was trying to convince you of the value of an idea that would potentially disrupt the way you work and force you to make changes in your daily routine not so much because you chose to make those changes, but because the implementation of a new idea would force that change. Most of us would not like that, no matter how compelling the idea might seem.

Where possible, draw up implementation plans that limit operational disruption -- at least initially.

You also need to be aware of status quo bias in yourself. If you are responsible for approving ideas, be sure you are not rejecting ideas that would result in change, simply because you don't want the change. One way to do this is to apply strict criteria to idea selection. Also, if you feel compelled to reject an idea that would result in operational change, analyse your decision carefully. Any idea that involves operational change is surely creative. Whether it is a potential innovation is a trickier question.


Status quo bias is a proven cognitive bias that exists in all normal people. Innovation, especially breakthrough innovation, requires veering from the status quo. As a result, the average managers is all too likely not to approve a highly innovative idea, not because of any intrinsic flaw in the idea, but because the idea would require change. You need to work around this bias if you truly want your company to innovate.

You can read more about status quo bias in Wikipedia


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Jeffrey Baumgartner
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Erps-Kwerps (near Leuven & Brussels) Belgium




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