Imagine you inherit a family cabin in the mountains. You haven’t spent time there in years, and your family isn’t really interested in weekends at the cabin. Another family member offers to buy the cabin for $100,000.
But you hesitate.
You’ve got these great memories, and sticking with the status quo lets you keep them.
What would you do? Have you ever dealt with this kind of a scenario? Something similar? Is there something in your life (or your business) that just "is how it is," and even if you don’t love it, you find it hard to think about changing?
It’s called "Status Quo Bias," and I pulled this cabin scenario from a fascinating article in the The New York Times.
What is Status Quo Bias?
Researchers are confirming what you may already sense about yourself — that we humans are saddled with a predisposition to keep making the same choices we’ve always made, even when there are better options and opportunities out there. Why? That’s just the default for a lot of us — we have a built-in tendency to keep things the way they are. Maybe it’s a fear of change, maybe it’s about sticking with the “devil you know.” It might look and feel like this:
Research can’t quite pinpoint all the reasons, but the article calls out three key aspects:
- Humans have a tendency to stick with how things are already — the status quo
- Humans have a tough time with complexity, and we get more overwhelmed when things get more complex
- When faced with making new decisions, we tend to choose the status quo by default
In a lot of ways, this makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. If something is working and we are surviving and growing, why change it? But this isn’t just an interesting bit of trivia plucked from the depths of unconscious human behavior — this is something I see holding businesses back all the time.
Status Quo Bias in Business
Today’s businesses have a tendency to stick with the status quo as well, and often we need the right kind of kick to take a fresh look at what is right in front of us. The real problem is how this gets in the way of business growth and that business growth strategy that companies so carefully develop. Once planned, they seem to stall. It's the bias that gets in the way.
But that question gets more complex and nuanced when we apply this idea of status quo bias to a business, and even more complex still when we think about all the options available to us in the information age.
- Product Development: All too often I see businesses get stuck in the rut of the status quo, turning out the same mediocre products quarter after quarter because the systems are in place and they don’t want to take the risk. It’s hard to develop new products, and inherent in the process is a lot of failure. Not every dollar spent on product development and exploration is going to have a clear-cut ROI. When executives think about where to spend money, all too often it’s easier to just keep the funding going where it already goes, even if those products are just mediocre performers.
- Training: This is another area where I see businesses missing opportunities left and right. Most often it’s a recurring theme at staff meetings where truly promising employees or team members ask for more internal training opportunities and/or funding for external training. Management will nod and say, "Yes, that’s a good idea and something that needs to happen; we’ll look into it and get back to you." But nothing ever happens! That’s because the status quo is for everyone to just keep doing what they’re doing and stay in their place.
But imagine if some of the funding set aside for new employee onboarding were allocated to ongoing training for existing employees — that’s an opportunity that keeps employees happy and benefits the company long-term. How we spend our resources is so important to how we help our staff adapt to change and release their biases against the new ideas that come from all over — particularly from new people.
- Time Management: We all have routines and habits that we’re used to. Sometimes these habits empower us and give us structure. Just as often they’re unintentional habits, those ruts, we’ve fallen into over time. It can be powerful to look at what we do day after day and ask ourselves whether it’s to our highest benefit, or whether we’re letting ourselves skate by. This is where the power of habits takes over and the efficiencies outweigh the wisdom.
What to Do About Status Quo Bias?
Status quo bias is everywhere once we start to look for it. But what do we do about it?
- Reversal Test: That same New York Times article suggests something called the Reversal Test. For the cabin example, they flip the scenario and ask, “Reverse the choice. Now you have $100,000 in the bank. Would you use that money to buy the family cabin?” This is a powerful test — if the status quo was the opposite of what it is now, would you feel strongly motivated to change it?
- Business Model Innovation: For business scenarios, though, the question usually isn’t as simple as one or the other, and I think that’s where applying methods we use in corporate anthropology can be powerful. An anthropological lens takes the habits, routines, and status quo and looks at them as a distinct corporate culture with a distinct set of tools, asking us to see, feel, and think in new ways. Rather than simply asking what we would do if certain conditions were reversed, anthropology asks the deeper questions of what is happening? And what can we test or try? What opportunities are there for growth? People also like to play with possibliites.
We use a lot of games to help them try ideas out. One game we like a lot for this type of problem is indeed called "Reverse Assumptions Exercise." It ties together the idea of reversing everything you do now and see what kinds of idea emerge. When it is your idea, it is far more compelling than when it comes from others.
Any tools to help overcome our resistance to change?
What would that family have felt if they had sold that wonderful old cabin? Are there things they could have done to try it out before abandoning the past? The same questions are raised for businesses that need or want to change. We urge you to take a look at games, Innovation Games® in particular. You can find them on our website. Just click the image below:
Another great resource for you is my new book, “On the Brink: A Fresh Lens to Take Your Business to New Heights,” where I talk extensively about this very topic. Order your copy from Amazon today!
Simon Associates Management Consultants