Jul 25th, 2019

A Tale of Innovators and Status Quo Protectors

Building on my last post on “Forget T-Shapes”, let me share a conviction of mine — one which I have built over two decades working for and with small, medium and large-sized companies.

The story goes something like this:

In the beginning every company is in exploration and discovery mode. Ideas need to be tested, products and service being created, processes being established. Once a company finds product-market fit it turns its attention towards protecting the status quo. Which is not a bad thing — quite contrary, it is the right and necessary thing for a company to do, as it is where the money is being made. And remember: No money, no company.

But then something curious happens. Over time companies calcify the status quo protection. They hire people who are amazing status quo protectors. And the company not only becomes less and less innovative, it also develops an immune system which starts attacking not only the threats from outside but also new, disruptive ideas from the inside.

Solving for this takes many forms and is no easy feat. One of the more intricate challenges and mistakes I see companies do over and over again is the (in)famous rallying cry toward “innovation”. In this well meant appeal, leaders tend to overlook one important fact — that they hired a bunch of people for their very specific talents in protecting the status quo. Which just happens to be diametrically opposed to being innovative.

Of course people can change and adept. But not everyone can or wants to change. And often we force a square peg into a round hole. I always cringe when I see swaths of employees being carted through design thinking workshops — when you can clearly see that a bunch of people in the room rather spend their time in front of their Excel spreadsheets (and are amazing at it).

As a leader acknowledge the fact that there are different people for different jobs. That people have strengths and weaknesses, and that it is our role as leaders to support people do their best work. And that you need not only innovators but also status quo protectors.

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