Like those with power in war, politics, religion, and even charities and greater-good enterprises, business leaders share the strong human need to preserve things as they are … to tinker rather than transform.
Building modestly on what is, jiggering with it, making small corrections—preserving the status quo no matter what, either deliberately or non-consciously, is the object of our desire. Change, particularly wholesale change is ambiguous and unknown—and like so many of us, leaders of mature organizations (and their boards) hate the unknown, which addicts them to what they know. As is said in recovery circles, maybe it smells bad, but at least it’s familiar.
After all, it’s far less threatening to go to a TED talk or read an e-book about reinventing yourself or your organization than to rip it apart and start again. Just look at any major trend in leadership—like “innovation”—and the more you see it written about or talked about, the greater the problem people have actually doing it, partiuclarly when something is already built and running.
And no matter what domain you look at—where us humans are involved—there’s a powerful magnetic pull to avoid change, or reinvention, even when facing a potentially tremendous opportunity for a greater good.
So it shouldn't come as a shock that there's an inverse relationship between maturity and the capacity / willingness for innovation. The more mature an organization, or entrenched its leadership may be, the less significant innovation is taken on.
Back in 2009 I dubbed this “status quo fetishism”—the tremendous impetus among leaders of mature organizations to tinker with the norms of the day rather than transform their products and services into something better. They see any rapid or major change as a threat: destabilizing, too risky, or too hard.
While the media and politicians (whenever they can make some hay of it) love to demonize corporations and their leaders, I’m inclined to take a more loving view. These execs are generally smart, capable, well-intentioned, solid people, facing the full catastrophe life presents each of us, in their own way.
To know someone well is to understand what he or she fears, and what they desire. They, like all of us, mainly fear not getting what they want, or losing what they have. They desire to love and be loved by those around them. It’s no leap of faith to get why they’re quite cautious about jumping on the reinvention / transformation bandwagon.
When something’s been built and out in the world for a while, self-preservation naturally kicks in. Change is harder. Indeed human nature is such that it takes a LOT of pain to propel a LOT of change.
The need to jigger with, game, and otherwise buy into the way things are versus change the rules altogether is the nature of the corporate jungle, and can be traced through what I see as four stages of an organization’s life:
1. INNOVATION: The birth of an idea or wholesale reinvention of something that can make the world a better place, or simply deliver a tremendous product or service. People involved in this venture tend to say “Oh my god, this is truly ingenuous, and may change everything!”
2. AUGMENTATION: Provided it makes it out of the early stage, there is a natural process of expansion / growth of the ideas into something larger. Those involved in this stage will say “It’s a wild ride! We need to nail things together better, though…”
3. CONSOLIDATION: Once this growth period levels off, there is the desire to consolidate power, revise content, process, and systematize. Here’s where you hear, “Things are taking longer to get done, but at least we have some process.”
4. SELF-PRESERVATION: This is where the shields go up, the hatches baton down, and the wagons are circled around the status quo. Changes made are incremental, rather than fundamental.” Getting stuck in this stage (rather than going back to INNOVATION) presents organizations and society with difficulties, particularly where there is potential for a greater good, or for doing harm. “Too big to fail,” characterizes many Stage 4 enterprises, as they are largest in the world, which means they have tremendous influence on all our lives.
In the U.S., we have entire industries, government agencies, educational systems, scientific systems, policies toward other nations, regulatory bodies, and the list goes WAY on, all in “self-preservation” mode.
Leaders of Stage Four enterprises aren’t typically evil or ill intentioned (evil / ill intentioned takes an innovative approach, which is one of the reasons it can be so threatening)—they’re just stuck, and their challenge is to recognize that status quo fetishism is a long term threat to sustainability for all of us, and get back to the best of what they are: innovators with the vision and resources to change for the greater good. Demonizing them simply isn't helpful, and in fact, just makes them want to dig in further.
Take a good hard look at what you’re holding on to, and keeping as it is, particularly if you are a leader. Realize that you come by your status quo fetish honestly, and don’t shy away from a new, blank whiteboard—the innovation that can come from that is surely worthwhile.