The Key to Innovation: Challenging the Status Quo

For leaders looking to challenge the status quo, are you ready to look in the mirror?

As any organization pursues growth and innovation, a likely phrase you will hear from the boardroom is, “We need to challenge the status quo!” Indeed, challenging the status quo is one of the top capabilities that organizations today are trying to develop. It may sound simple, but how exactly do you do it?

First, it is useful to define what we mean by the “status quo.” Generally speaking, we can define the status quo as doing an old thing in an old way. In other terms, the status quo is “the way things are done around here,” like selling the same products to the same customers, having the same meetings, and hiring and promoting the same types of talent we always have.

If the status quo means doing an old thing in an old way, or doing things the way they’ve traditionally been done, then it would appear that innovation means doing a new thing in a new way. Does that mean any organization seeking innovation has to either reinvent themselves or reinvent the wheel, pioneering a completely new industry or solution? Not exactly.

Many of the most useful and most profitable innovations of our time have been those that find a new way to do an old thing–think ride sharing services or the smartphone–or those that create a new experience using existing methods and tools–think podcasts or farm to table dining.

On one hand, this means there’s a lot more room for innovation than it might at first appear. On the other hand, it means any organization struggling to “challenge the status quo” might have to face some uncomfortable questions about itself in order to move forward.


Challenging your own status quo
If you’re a leader asking your team to “challenge the status quo,” recognize that what you’re really asking them to do is challenge “the way we do things around here.”

The first step in that process is identifying what the team or organization is actually doing–not what you say you do or what your customers think you do, but what you actually do. What are the tools, processes and products that make the organization tick? This constellation of factors is the status quo that you will need to interrogate and disrupt if you want to innovate.

Once you’ve taken stock of your own status quo, the most important question is: Why do we do these things in these ways?

The point of asking the question is not necessarily to burn the status quo to the ground completely, but to identify the elements within it that are preventing innovation. After all, there are often good reasons that organizations do things the way they do, and there’s no need to fix something that’s not broken. But if your team struggles to explain why they do a particular thing in a particular way, it might be the case that those good reasons either don’t exist anymore or that they need rethinking. In such cases, there are two likely explanations for why things are the way they are: past leaders decided they should be that way based on now-irrelevant factors, or the organization allowed them to get that way over time by losing sight of their original intent or value. In other words, you’ve either made it be or let it be.

In either case, the people within the organization are responsible for the way things are, and the people within the organization must be the ones to change them. So if you’re a leader asking your team to “challenge the status quo,” be aware that you’re potentially asking them to challenge your decisions and leadership, and that your decisions and values might need to shift in order to achieve the innovations you want.

“If you’re a leader who has been in the organization for more than (three) years, be prepared to be challenged.”

Innovation is not easy, and many organizations fail because they cannot shift their status quo. But if you feel prepared to challenge your own decisions and beliefs for the benefit of the organization, you are ready to begin the journey toward innovation.

Linda Quarles
Executive Director, Org Design
Linda Quarles
Linda Quarles
Executive Director, Org Design

Linda provides a broad range of consultative services to build capability and improve organizational performance with clients globally. After more than two decades leading organization transformations from within, Linda brings empathy for leaders driving culture change, innovation and growth in organizations from startups to Fortune 500.

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