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Entrepreneurs: Don't Just 'Challenge the Status Quo'

A Google search on the phrase "challenge the status quo" - in quotes, no less - gets 472,000 records. Why do you suppose that is? Yes, I know it's a popular axiom for entrepreneurs and leaders. I was being facetious.

After all, management experts have been telling would-be entrepreneurs and leaders to challenge the status quo for almost as long as there's been a status quo. But sometimes we get so used to hearing a phrase that it becomes axiomatic - something we take for granted as true - even when it shouldn't.

The problem with telling people to challenge the status quo is that, without qualifiers, it can send the wrong message. Without proper context, the message can backfire. Here are 7 different interpretations to illustrate what I mean:
7 Challenges to "Challenge the Status Quo"

  • Do things differently. Doing things differently doesn't mean doing them better. The same goes for change, which, for its own sake, is disruptive.
  • Don't be a yes man. Nobody should be a yes man or woman; stating what you believe to be true without fear of consequences is called being a good manager. It's not about challenging anything.
  • Be a contrarian. Then you're a constant PITA, an impediment to the coalescence of ideas, strategies, and plans, a thorn in everyone's side.
  • Challenge management. Sure; and when you become "management," then upstarts can challenge you. The result is a never ending us versus them battle. It's silo behavior and it's dysfunctional.
  • Take a stand against authority. This shouldn't apply in a capitalistic economic system. And it can be construed as supporting disruptive childish behavior, i.e. acting out.
  • Take risks. Well, sure, risk is a necessary ingredient for growth of any kind, but the status quo may already incorporate an excellent growth plan.
  • Think outside the box. Successful entrepreneurs do look at old ideas in new ways. But if you take it too far, you can end up with fringe ideas and impractical solutions to problems.
Look, there are no quick fixes for anything important. Blog regulars know I never get tired of saying that. Well, challenging the status quo is no different. It's more about the process - how you do it - than it is about simply challenging the norm. So by all means, challenge away, but keep three things in mind when you do:
  1. The goal. Never lose site of the goals of your company, group, business, whatever it is you're evaluating and "challenging." That should be your guiding light.
  2. The customer. Whoever your customer is - those who buy your products or services or another organization within your company - stay focused on meeting their needs.
  3. The organization. Every so often, stop and take a look around to make sure folks are actually following your lead. If not, you may have some internal selling to do.
Apple's Steve Jobs is an entrepreneur who knows how to challenge the status quo while keeping his eye on the ball - by truly understanding what customers want and then delivering. The Mac, iPod, and iPhone are all evidence of that. Any others? How about Google's founders, IBM's Lou Gerstner, ...?
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