Challenging the Status Quo

I am working with a client at the moment to help change culture to be more leadership and performance focused. One element of this cultural change is increasing the capability and a willingness to challenge the status quo. There is an old business saying along the lines of ‘if you’re not changing, you’re dying.’ In a world that is constantly changing our current bandwidth won’t be enough and we need to challenge the status quo and look for new ways of doing things in order to make progress.

In my experience organisations are good at identifying and adhering to risk within their environment whether that is be currency related, environmental, project delays or events that are unforeseen. I haven’t met as many that are as good at identifying the risk of staying within their comfort zone. By not disrupting and not challenging the status quo we risk not making progress, moving forward, innovating and breaking out of the pack beyond our competitors.

So what do we mean by challenging the status quo? It’s adopting a continuous improvement mindset and having a healthy scepticism of the current state of things. Honestly assessing where you are and comparing that to your aspirations as a team or organisation. Innovation and creativity don’t have to be transformational or big ideas. Innovations rarely get created full-blown. They are often the result of challenging the status quo, experimentation, trial and error and tinkering. Innovation and adapting to changes in the external environment rarely happen if we are unwilling to challenge the status quo.

In my workshops I often mention how the Beatles were willing to challenge the status quo.  The Beatles were incredibly successful in the early to mid 60’s. They produced hit after hit, performed in front of large crowds and were adored for their easy to sing music. Their performance on the Ed Sullivan show in February 1964 attracted 73 million people which was around 34% of the population. They appealed to all. In 1964 they had 12 songs in the Billboard top 100.


They were also a band that was willing to challenge the status quo. Here are some examples

  • In 1965 they were the first of their type to move from playing in auditoriums to playing in large stadiums. At the time there were doubts they could pull it off but they managed to fill Shea Stadium in New York with 55,000 people. There were other sold out stadium concerts across the US. This seems normal to us to these days but it wasn’t in the mid 60’s.


  • In 1966 at their peak they quit touring (albeit amongst controversy) – they never toured again and rather than staying with the same music format that had made them so successful they started to experiment with different forms of music. They were influenced by Indian music, classical, blues music, the psychedelia culture, heavy rock and using unconventional recording techniques in innovative ways. The result were brilliant albums including Sergeant Peppers Lonely Heart Club Band which Rolling Stone rated the best album of the 500 best albums ever produced. They experimented and tinkered with their sounds. The critical reaction to Sergeant Peppers was confirmation enough that their experimentation was working. They also may have realised that their existing sound wasn’t going to cut it as music changed across the latter part of the 1960’s.


  • They were the first to produce what was known as the concept album (Sergeant Peppers Lonely Heart Club Band) which is common place today. Prior to 1966, musical acts went into the recording studio in order to create a stack of singles. These singles were first released individually by the record company, and then again in a few months as part of a long-playing album. Their concept album was released prior to any singles again challenging the status quo.


  • They were first band with this concept album to have printed lyrics in the album cover.

One of the key ingredients of why the Beatles were able to challenge the status quo was their collective intelligence. Collective intelligence is tapping into the individual intelligence, thinking and experience of team members to make progress on something that is important to them. Each individual brings to the process a mindset that risk, experimentation and thinking outside the box is valued and encouraged. In the early days The Beatle, initially, were very much about John and Paul but George Harrison and their producer George Martin were significant influencers in their new sound.


So what are 4 things to think about when challenging the status quo?

  • Ask good questions. If you are seeking to challenge the status quo within your team or organisation ask the right type of questions. Keep asking until they get the right attention. Here are some of the questions I have seen used:


  1. What appears to have been status quo for some time?
  2. What is at risk if XYZ stays the same?
  3. How does this process/product help my customer?
  4. What needs to be challenged?
  5. Is this the best way we can approach this?
  6. What are some alternative ways we can do this XYZ?
  7. What if we could produce this in half the time?
  8. What would it take to beat our competitors?
  9. How can we become the best team in our industry?
  10. Thinking globally what does great look like?

One of the questions that I really like is “If Amazon (an organisation that is known as innovative and willing to challenge the status quo) was running your team/organisation, what would they do differently”

  • Raise the heat. Raising the heat or provoking with purpose involves generating attention towards having the real conversations about the status quo. It disrupts people from feeling stable and comfortable to being in their productive zone where debate, challenge and loss can be spoken about. It might include some of the questions from above or it could be simply raising the observation that the current way of doing things is not working or won’t work moving forward.


  • Be purpose driven. If you are going to raise the heat and challenge the status quo then you need to be driven by purpose. Challenging the status quo will likely involve loss and resistance. It is important to be inspired by a collective purpose. That purpose may be around the customer, innovation, the community or performance. Whenever you challenge the status quo always think about how this aligns with you’re your purpose.


  • Ensure there is psychological safety. This is imperative. If you expect people to challenge the status quo you are asking them to take a risk. If your culture has been one of punishing failure or mistakes then people will be reluctant to speak up and challenge the status quo. Why would they? Individuals maximise emotional security and minimise emotional risk. If you want people to take a risk and speak out then you need to provide cover as manager. People feel they need to be protected if they are being encouraged to speak up and challenge the current environment. That doesn’t mean you don’t call out behaviour that is derailing the team. Challenging the status quo doesn’t mean individuals derail for their agenda. It is about focusing on what the team or the organisation needs.
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