Is it possible to pipe up on the status quo at work and succeed in doing it?

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The idea of how to challenge the status quo at work is a fairly fraught one. Most organizations have a tremendously deep belief in company hierarchy, and if hierarchy is the game, well … good luck with any attempt to challenge the status quo. In a lot of companies, managers tend to view new ideas more as a threat than something that could drive the business forward. Ultimately, this attitude becomes super frustrating for most people. (It becomes more frustrating when you consider that most middle managers are just revenue-sucking gatekeepers anyway.)

But still, the work environment is very different now. Technology, digital, mobile, etc. — a 62 year-old exec knows not these things. He wants to get back to the age of revenue streams he understood. Cold-calling. Brick and mortar. Relationship-building. Elements of those things still exist, but the landscape around them is very different. There are elements of truth to this idea of “disruption.” As a result of all this — business models need to shift. How do they shift? Someone needs to challenge the status quo.

We’re back at Square 1, though. A lot of managers tend to withhold information down a business chain — it protects their perch in the process. And, sadly, many managers believe that organizational breakthroughs can only occur at their level. At this intersection, it becomes really hard for anyone to challenge the status quo. They both (a) lack the necessary information to do so and (b) probably are never let into the meetings where that could even happen. In fact, a couple of years ago, Fast Company wrote an article about “how to introduce new ideas at work.” Their advice: basically completely roll over for the highest earners. In other words: “challenge the status quo” becomes “be a whimpering bitch for your boss.” Fun times!

What’s the game here? Can we successfully challenge the status quo in a job? Let’s try.

Challenge the status quo: Quick personal story

Got laid off from my last gig. Ultimately it was because I screwed up some credit card receipts and it looked like I was stealing money. (I was not.) That’s my bad, and I had a shitty relationship with my boss — so when you combine those, I was out the door. But if you’ve ever read this blog, you know I don’t tread lightly around corporate BS. Everyone at most jobs is terrified of incompetence, so all the time at this last gig people were asking me “Hey, is such-and-such article about so-and-so person?” Now look, sometimes they were. Yes. Anyone who writes or blogs or whatever ultimately writes what they know. But oftentimes, they were general, or based on research, or based on other jobs I’ve had.

In short, there was a functional reason I got canned — was I stealing money?!?! — and an emotional reason too. The emotional reason was that I spent a lot of time internally trying to challenge the status quo. People often don’t like that. It wasn’t just that job. I’ve seen that at every job I’ve ever had. Many “thought leaders” love to write articles about how “That’s how we’ve always done it” is bad for business. It is, but ironically those same thought leaders go collect checks from the exact guys saying that. We live in an interesting time.

Challenge the status quo: Some research

New article on Harvard Business Review entitled “Five Mistakes Employees Make When Challenging The Status Quo.” What are those five mistakes?

  • Failure to prioritize ideas
  • Going at it solo
  • Bomb in the pitch meeting
  • Giving up too soon
  • You ignore danger signals

Decent list. This is written by a former marketing executive (gag) and a former deputy director of the CIA (cool), so it has some heft behind it. I would say these five represent probably 80–90 percent of why attempts to challenge the status quo die in the flood. Let’s go a little deeper.

Challenge the status quo: How can we improve this?

Let’s run through those five above.

Failure to prioritize: This isn’t just a “challenge the status quo” deal — this happens all over companies. For better or (likely) worse, guys that make decisions at companies usually want “high-priority” items to be tied to cold, hard cash. It’s that simple. So to prioritize, start with the fiscally-relevant stuff, or at least tie the idea to numbers. Otherwise no one will care.

Going at it solo: This would be my big one where people can do better. You absolutely need to align yourself with someone in the power core of where you work. If you’re coming in as a solo person and the execs don’t really know you or know who “owns” you (who your boss is), you’re fucked. Work is largely about protecting perches and keeping like-minded people together. If you come in and try to mess with that, it will be too jarring — and your ideas will go nowhere.

Bomb the pitch meeting: Probably tied it too much to “data” and not enough to “stories.”

I try to think about work in different ways, and I also try to call out some managerial BS we’ve all experienced. If that kinda sorta interests you, I do a newsletter every Thursday. Feel free to join up.

Giving up too soon: We’re all guilty of this, in large part because our workplaces aren’t geared towards discussing any aspects of failure.

Ignore the danger signals: Again, we all do this. Most of us bury our heads in the sand chasing task work and telling everyone in an 11-mile radius how busy we are. When you’re doing that, it’s hard to see danger signals.

So what’s the big idea on how to challenge the status quo?

It’s complicated, because hierarchy is complicated — and despite ideas about “self-management,” hierarchy isn’t going anywhere. But in general, I think the ways to challenge the status quo would be:

  • Have a good idea about a new concept
  • Tie it to a revenue stream
  • Connect yourself to someone in the decision-making core of where you work
  • Have good stories
  • Make the pitch deck manageable
  • Be ready to adjust it with stupid, far-from-the-customer ideas your execs lob at you
  • Smile and nod a lot

If you follow those bullets, I think you could make a little bit of a dent in the status quo.

What else would you add on how to challenge the status quo at work?

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Blogging, largely about work and how to improve it. How I make (some) money:

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