Transcending the Status Quo

I was recently asked about the reasons for the status quo, specifically the lack of attention given to selecting, prioritizing, and supporting strategic initiatives. Everyone knows that strategy is important, so how do you get people moving?

Let’s start by describing some concepts that help develop understanding about the sources of status quo.

“Flow” and being in “the zone.” Flow describes the psychological state where a person is absorbed in the task; they have a feeling of energized focus. Time seems to pass quickly. The presence of clear goals and measurable progress seems to enhance flow.

From a strategic thinking perspective, in conditions of flow, people lose their ability to self-consciously reflect upon their situation. They are captivated by psychological flow, an enemy of competent strategic thinking.

A preference for intuition. Intuition is a kind of memory that comes from repeated exposure to a task and the environment. Intuition leads to good decisions most of the time, but is frequently faulted when mistakes are made.

Intuition is also an enemy of strategic thinking.

Regrets and the “negative fantasy.” People tend to imagine more regrets from a choice to act.  They tend to have fewer regrets for staying put. Thus, making choices to act is associated with regret and the resulting cognitive bias is for the status quo.

Further, people are subject to imaging a story about themselves that escalates into an unrealistic, low-probability-but-horrible outcome.  Here is an example that I frequently see: A person is given a vague task.  Rather than ask clarifying questions, they tend to make their own assumptions (which are, many times, poor assumptions). They don’t ask questions because they regard themselves as a subject matter expert. Here’s where the logic and imagination gets slippery: If they ask a question, it means that they don’t know. If they don’t know, then they can’t be an expert. If they are not an expert, they have lost the respect of others and their own self-worth. (Here’s where the negative fantasy really takes off.) Because they have lost respect, they are unlovable, not valued, and unnecessary. Their employer will fire them and their family will abandon them. They will end up homeless and isolated. Our minds exaggerate things and justify our inaction.

Organizational culture tends to preserve and amplify conventional thinking

Here is a fourth reason for why the short-term status quo gets more effort than strategy work:

Strategy imposes a cost with uncertain benefits. Many managers follow an unwritten role of operational-thinking rule: don’t incur a cost unless it yields immediate and preferably economically-measurable direct benefits. Operational thinkers quickly sense that doing strategy work imposes a cost on the organization: taking the time to collect and analyze data about the competitive environment causes people to de-specialize. It moves energy away from the task at hand. That energy has a cost and the easy decision is to defer it to later.

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The status quo bias is a powerful challenge to strategy work. The tendency towards the status quo is a basic feature of human cognition.  This article describes a little bit of the underlying theory and will help you understand why it happens.  The pragmatists want to know: how do you transcend it?

The answers include developing self-awareness of your own thinking, noticing what’s going on around you, and having the courage to speak the truth. If you work in an empowerment culture, you will find it easier to speak your mind than if you work in a permission culture, where you need to find an audience with the powerful elites.

What are the other causes and solutions to the status quo?



About Greg Githens

Author, How to Think Strategically (2019) Executive and leadership coach. Experience in driving change in Fortune 500 and mid-size companies through strategic initiatives and business transformation. Seminar leader and facilitator - high-impact results in crafting and delivering strategy, strategic initiatives, program management, innovation, project management, risk, and capturing customer requirements.
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