A Leader’s Guide to Challenging the Status Quo

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Leadership Challenge" by James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Why is it important to challenge the status quo? What can you, as a leader, do to make sure your organization is keeping up with the times and always improving?

People in organizations get used to doing things a certain way and are often reluctant to change their habits, defaulting to the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mentality. Even if they know a procedure could be better, they’ll often resist changing it simply because it’s easier to carry on as usual. However, challenging the status quo is your job, as a leader.

To challenge the status quo, always stay on the lookout for new opportunities to grow, and look outward—innovations come from anywhere. We’ll discuss these two concepts below.

1. Search for Opportunities

Envisioning opportunities is a foundational part of leadership: Leaders think about possibilities and then lead other people toward them. Every venture starts with an idea of how life might be different. Sometimes opportunities arrive at a leader’s feet, but most often, a leader proactively looks for them. Two rules can guide you in this:

  1. Take initiative.
  2. Look outward.

Take Initiative

The first part of searching for opportunity is taking the initiative

A leader guides others to a new place, and to do that, you have to disturb the existing order of things. 

  • Existing processes and procedures might have worked for your organization up to the present, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll work in the future. 
  • Sometimes change might be incremental, but sometimes, you may need to change something on a fundamental level. 

Consequently, as a leader, you must be the one to critically examine the processes and procedures you’ve grown to rely on, and to take the initiative to change them. 

Ask Questions

As a leader, your job is to see opportunities when others don’t. To spot opportunities that others miss, get into the habit of asking lots of questions.

People naturally ask questions during times of transition, such as when they’re joining an organization or taking on a new project. During these times, you’re looking at processes and procedures with a fresh eye, and you’ll naturally question why things are done this way and whether there are better ways to do them. 

Be sure to continue this process even after you’ve settled into a position or a role. Continue to ask questions that test others’ assumptions, so you can stimulate new ways of thinking and find new paths to explore. 

Act Before Others

When leaders recognize a problem, they don’t wait for permission or a set of instructions—they start devising a solution right away. By implementing a solution, you can demonstrate its effectiveness in a way that’s more convincing than a plan would have been. 

When you ask for permission, you might run up against the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mentality we mentioned earlier, or you may run into endless procedural delays. For this reason, look for opportunities to implement improvements proactively. 

Encourage Initiative in Others

Everyone on your team, down to the most junior member, should feel they can innovate and improve your team’s systems. When you allow everyone to contribute ideas, you can end up with unexpectedly positive results—sometimes the most junior members of a team are the ones who can see processes and procedures with fresh eyes. 

  • Hold regular meetings and encourage brainstorming sessions to draw out ideas from every corner. Inspire people to speak their minds and to offer constructive criticism. 
  • Implement training programs that help team members gain mastery of tasks one step at a time. This will build their confidence so they feel capable of responding to difficulties on their own.
  • Set up mentoring programs with peers or role models who have a history of meeting challenges. People learn best by watching other people in action, and mentors can help their mentees with real-time advice as situations arise. Connect people to role models based on the particular skills they need to develop. 

This practice alone will have an outsized effect on team morale: Research shows that those who are frequently encouraged to take initiative in their jobs are about 90% more likely to work harder and longer hours than people who are rarely encouraged to take initiative. 

Have a Reason

While you want to be constantly on the lookout for opportunities for improvement, don’t try to improve things where improvement isn’t actually needed. Don’t be someone who’s always critiquing, nitpicking, and pointing out problems. Further, if you look for problems, have alternate solutions to offer instead of just pointing out what people are doing wrong. 

  • Your team members will want to know that your changes are for a greater good, and not just changes for the sake of making changes. 
  • Remember that changes can make peoples’ jobs more unstable and difficult for a while during the transition, so any changes you make should ultimately make things much easier to make it worth the time and effort. If they don’t, people won’t connect with or support the changes, but will instead see them as wastes of time. 

Case Study: Dina Campion at Starbucks 

Dina Campion, a district manager at Starbucks, provides an example of someone recognizing an opportunity, taking initiative, and acting before others do. She noticed that customers were going to competitors’ stores for blended, frozen drinks. The Starbucks corporate management didn’t think the product was worth pursuing, but Dina disagreed. 

Without asking permission, she took the initiative to experiment with a blended frozen drink in one location, to prove the concept. The drink proved so popular that the company expanded it to the rest of the chain, investing in blenders for all locations. The resulting product was the Frappuccino, which became the most successful product launch in Starbucks’s history. 

2. Look Outward

The second part of searching for opportunity is looking outward

Innovations can come from anywhere. A global study showed that most significant innovations come from outside an organization. Ideas can come from, for example, customers, suppliers, business partners, and rival organizations. To increase your chances of spotting opportunities and outside innovations:

  • Expand your experiences.
  • Seek diverse perspectives.
  • Treat every job as an adventure.

Expand Your Experiences

Because ideas come from everywhere, actively engage with “everywhere.” When you engage the outside world, you promote conversations that can yield unexpected opportunities and ideas. 

  • Make it a priority to stay informed about events, happenings, conversations, and trends. 
  • Keep up with the news headlines, stop by colleagues’ desks to say hello, join your peers at lunch, and attend conferences and training programs. 

Research shows that when you bombard your brain with new stimuli, you promote creative thinking. When you mix up routines, your brain gets put on alert and starts noticing things and making new connections. Otherwise, your brain gets used to routines and stops noticing details—it’s an evolutionary feature designed to save energy.  

The best way to shake up your routines and spark creativity is to engage in direct, personal experiences outside your normal world. If you’re faced with a seemingly insurmountable problem, the best way to find a solution is to go out into the world and seek information that’s not accessible to you while sitting behind a desk. 

Seek Diverse Perspectives

To spot new ideas and opportunities, be open to input from a wide range of sources. Even if one person presents an idea that seems valid and sufficient, seek out other opinions, because people from other backgrounds can come up with differing ideas that can shed additional light on the issue. 

Sometimes people, especially leaders, avoid seeking other people’s opinions or advice out of a fear that they’ll appear incompetent or unknowledgeable about something they should know. However, the truth is that people tend to view leaders who ask for advice as more competent than those who don’t. This perception is enhanced when the task is more difficult. 

To widen your scope of opinions:

  • Encourage your team members to share information with each other and to seek information from outside your team. 
  • Seek out the opinion of someone who irritates you or with whom you often disagree.
  • Reach out to people beyond your comfort zone—people you don’t often interact with. 

Studies of laboratory research teams find that teams engaging in significantly more communication with people outside their labs have much higher performances. These outside influences don’t even have to be immediately relevant to their lab work: Even contact with unrelated departments like marketing, manufacturing, or outside professional groups still has a high correlation to job performance. 

Researchers also find that unless people consciously and actively make a point of seeking out diverse opinions, they tend to become insular and cut off important sources of ideas. Further, the longer a team has been working together, the less they tend to reach out to people beyond their team, cutting off sources of information and ultimately reducing their own performance. Therefore, make a conscious choice to seek out others, so you and your team don’t end up so comfortable with each other that you become complacent.

Treat Every Job as an Adventure

Your attitude toward your job will define how much you get out of it. If you see your job as merely a job, you’ll simply complete the task and be done. However, if you see your job as an adventure and an opportunity to learn and grow, you can make something exceptional happen. Outstanding leaders choose adventure.

There are many things you can do to turn your job into an adventure. Essentially, each one points to your willingness to step out of the boundaries of your role:

  • Explore the world of your organization: Visit a factory or warehouse. Talk to people in different departments. Reach out to clients who interest you.
  • Make gathering ideas part of your routine: Use things such as focus groups, suggestion boxes, and customer feedback forms. Employ mystery shoppers, visit a competitor’s store, or call a few customers who haven’t used your services lately to find out why.
  • Involve others in idea generation: Devote time at every staff meeting to brainstorming or listening to concerns from team members. Invite outsiders, such as customers or people from other departments, to join occasionally so they can give you their perspectives as well. 

Case Study: Priya Saudagaran in India

While working for a nonprofit organization providing water purification systems for rural India, Priya Saudagaran modeled how to lead by challenging the status quo, looking outward, expanding her experience, seeking diverse perspectives, and viewing her job as more than just a job. 

Management of her organization decided to shut down one particular treatment system because residents of that area weren’t buying the water, and they couldn’t justify keeping the spot open financially. Priya, distressed that the local villagers would lose access to clean water and convinced that the decision didn’t fit with the organization’s mission, went into the field to investigate why the villagers weren’t purchasing the water. 

She also reached out to other nonprofits in similar work who were running into these kinds of problems to see how they dealt with them. As a result of her insights, the organization increased its community involvement, adjusted its business model, and was able to become profitable within 12 months. The model she inspired was copied in other locales. 

A Leader’s Guide to Challenging the Status Quo

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Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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