The Case For Culture: How To Question Your Way To Success

Why question the status quo?

Bound by traditions, beliefs, and routines, human beings are creatures of habit. Many of us are comfortable with the status quo and to question it, from a professional standpoint, is often times seen as risky.

But it is far more risky to not question the status quo.

Mr. Khosla At Haas In 2009
Mr. Khosla At Haas In 2009

When Vinod Khosla spoke at Haas in 2009 he focused on innovation and cultivating new and “unreasonable” ideas. Mr. Khosla is no stranger to new ideas and his firm, Khosla Ventures, has put its money where its mouth is by funding projects classified as “science experiments” which Khosla hopes will “reinvent the infrastructure of society.” It’s safe to say Mr. Khosla has thought a lot on innovation. It is, after all, his business. Among the examples he gave during his speech, there were two which really stood out: a study on oil prices and their relationship between analyst speculation and reality, and a study executed by McKinsey for AT&T regarding the future of the mobile phone industry.

In the oil study researchers found that expert analysis was often far off from the real results. For years analysts projected oil prices and every time the projections would fall significantly below the actual numbers. In the McKinsey study the company reported that only 1 million mobile phones would be in use by the year 2000. Those findings led AT&T to cut their presence in the mobile phone business. The actual number of mobile phones in 2000?

Over 100 million.

Why are these two examples so significant? Why do they matter? Because both of these examples were a perfect place to question the status quo. The fundamental issue found in oil price projections was the model that was being used. It turned out that even after major volatility appeared in the industry the model used to predict prices remained the same. In other words, the world was moving faster than the model. This isn’t a unique incident, there are cases throughout history that show a business process or model that was once the status quo of how things were done only to be improved upon or changed.

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Not Exactly An iPhone

In the McKinsey case it was the type of mobile phone the study was based off of that led the consultants to totally miss the mark. The consultants were making their assumptions with a total ‘brick’ of a phone; it seemed (and rightfully so) very unlikely that the technology, given what was available at the time, would have the unbelievable growth potential that it did. The analysts failed to consider the future of mobile technology, they settled for the status quo in what was mobile phone design. That in turn formed that basis for their analysis that cost AT&T billions.

History is full of poor executive decisions that failed to look beyond the status quo. Western Union overemphasized the shortcomings of the telephone and focused on the telegraph, and Ken Olson, CEO of the Digital Equipment Corporation, saw personal computers as too impractical to ever find a way into every home. Both companies would come to regret their actions led by these mindsets and left to wonder what success they might have had if they’d looked beyond the status quo of their present day.

Being able to question the status quo is a valuable skill, and in a world where too few have the courage to do so, having that skill will let you stand out in the workforce and bend new paths in the business world. You may be thinking that If questioning the status quo was so important why isn’t it more common, shouldn’t everyone be trying to develop that mindset?

If it were easy everyone would be doing it, but remember that we are creatures of habit. Most people are happier simply following the status quo. But if you’ve read this far I doubt you are one of them. Fortunately there are three steps to help you focus your mind and get on the right track to developing a more forward thinking outlook.

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The Occupy Movement Certainly Questioned The Status Quo

First, if you’re going to question the status quo try first to think of at least one possible solution to the issue. Many people perceive questioning the status quo as complaining or that if you question everything nothing could ever be done. This is why having just one possible solution can make all the difference. All too often you see people try to question the status quo but fall short because they couldn’t offer up a real solution. The Occupy Wall St. protests in many ways exemplify this.  There was quite clearly a desire by many to challenge the way business was operating and how the country was being run. Unfortunately when it came time to answer to the media and the public in terms of what changes were needed there wasn’t a clear and focused message coming from the movement. There were a lot of people with a lot of opinions, but there were just as many who wanted change but could offer no real solution. Opponents ran with that and with no solutions to work towards the movement lost a lot of momentum.

There were certainly many more pieces to the movement but the point remains that if you think things need to change come up with some possible alternatives. At best you’ll solve the problem, at worst you have a starting point to begin negotiations (and you must be willing to negotiate).

From a workplace perspective this is very important. It’s one thing to approach your boss or colleagues and bring up a problem at the office, but it really showcases a level of leadership when you come in with a problem and a solution. Even if people disagree they’ll respect the thought you’ve put into it and recognize you not as a complainer but a problem finder and a problem solver.

You may also find that you think change is needed but can’t come up with an idea of how to fix the problem. Just remember that the process of change is a group effort and seeking others out for ideas or feedback on your ideas is a great way to come up with a strong possible solution.

Second, try to look at solutions in an experimental way. Don’t be afraid to test your hypothesis and realize you were wrong. Obviously I’m not suggesting you bet the company, start small, it’s all about making change a part of how you approach the business world. Many companies dislike change, they fight it. They think that their success is dependent on continuing to do everything the same. It was, after all, that path which led to their success in the first place. The world is always changing and while the status quo many guarantee returns in the short run change is key for long run survival, and questioning where your company’s path leads isn’t suggested it’s required.

The key takeaway here is learning, you need to be willing to say ‘I think we should do this, and at the very least if it doesn’t work it’s a learning experience.’ It’s about making the most of what you do. It’s easy to make a mistake and write it off as just something you won’t do again. It’s easy to want to forget the missteps and move on to the next possible solution, but that’s a waste of a perfectly good failure.

There’s an old saying that the wisest person in the room is the one who’s made the most mistakes, but making mistakes is half the battle, it’s integral that you think about the whys behind those missteps. Take those whys and study them. It will ensure you never make that mistake again but also that you have a better understanding of the reasons behind why things didn’t work. This can bring your attention to issues you’ve never thought of and new possible problems to question.

My last piece of advice comes from the Haas School itself in the form of a helpful diagram that can be referenced if you’re ever looking for more guidance when attempting to question matters in the workplace.Screen shot 2013-01-21 at 5.03.08 PM

The Haas School has put together a three-step process for questioning the status quo. It’s certainly reasonable to be concerned that if everyone is questioning then nothing could possibly be done, and as soon as a new process is put into place someone will throw it away for another new idea. This process helps prevent total chaos by giving you three boxes to check off before you start calling for anything dramatic. Those steps are as follows:

  1. Ask yourself are we doing the right things? (On Track)
  2. Ask yourself can we do this better? (Incremental)
  3. Ask yourself can we do this differently? (Transformational)

Basically first ask if things really need to change. If you feel that change would be good then you have two possible paths to take. Going with an incremental change/solution is when you believe that the process is fine but some minor adjustments or changes with personnel would maximize the effectiveness of the current process. The transformational change/solution is when minor adjustments aren’t good enough and it’s an issue with the process itself. Should a process be outdated or not a good fit then it may need to be replaced with a new process, transforming the way things are done.Screen shot 2013-01-21 at 5.03.45 PM

It’s worth noting that the diagram has these steps interconnected. Truthfully there can be an element to each step within each other step. While you always start by asking if you’re on the right track, that question should be present in any changes or at every level of the process you’re evaluating. Once you’ve decided if you’re looking at an incremental or transformational change there’s no reason why you can’t discover that a part of the incremental change would be quite transformational or that to get to a transformational change you must implement some incremental changes. It can get fairly complex but as long as you follow the three-step process to start with you’ll find questioning the status quo to be far less daunting and less prone to causing chaos.

To quote Mr. Khosla, “rational people only do rational things.” If your goals include standing out amongst your fellow students, employees, and competitors in the business world you need to be unique. That could mean you or your company needs to change, if it does, questioning the status quo is a great place to start.

This article is the third article in a five part series that focuses on culture and the Haas School’s Four Defining Principles.

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