Photo by Author
A while back, my wife and I traveled to an African country. It was quite an adventure for us. The trip was part business and part pleasure. We met up with some friends to learn more about the organization they led, an NGO (non-governmental organization) focused on serving the needs of local citizens and ‘the poor.” The term NGO, originated from the United Nations, as you probably know, refers to organizations that are designed to help others, often a humanitarian-type of organization.
Well, we were in Africa trying to determine whether or not I was going to leave the “corporate world” and help lead this NGO on a full-time basis. So, there was obviously a lot of “work” to accomplish during our trip. We visited many sites, governmental officials, local leaders and the like. Of course, I LOVE that type of thing so it really wasn’t “work” for me.
In addition to the “work” we were doing on our trip, we also had an opportunity to do a bit of site-seeing, people-watching and, in general, play tourist (which was pretty hard since many of the locals thought I was CIA – maybe due to my shaved head and Ray Ban aviator sunglasses!). Or perhaps they thought my wife, Kelli, looked like the wife of a CIA operative. Who knows? It was kinda funny.
While talking with a local guy about the speed of change in the city and people’s willingness to embrace new ideas and try new things, he told me a story. I LOVE stories. Stories have been around for thousands of years and are told in all parts of the world. Even the “corporate world” has embraced story-telling in recent years as a great way to cast vision, reinforce corporate values, and lead during times of change. One can remember a story long after they’ve forgotten facts learned in a formal, academic setting. A great story lasts forever.
My local friend said that once in the city council they were discussing a large ‘hole’ that was causing trouble in the city. The hole was deep and didn’t have any fencing around it. Passersby kept falling into this hole and getting hurt. Broken ankles. Fractured ribs. Concussions. … So after significant deliberation, one councilman proposes that an ambulance from the local hospital be permanently stationed by ‘the hole.’ That way, he explained, when a passerby fell into the hole and hurt themselves, they could be rushed to the hospital and treated. After several more hours of discussion, the council decided to think about it, pray about it and reconvene in a month.
The following month, the councilmen were, once again, focused on “the hole.” It was the key item on their monthly agenda. After some initial discussion, a brave councilman finally said, “the first councilman’s idea is good, but I proposed a new hospital be built beside the hole, that way the ambulance drive to the hospital can be eliminated and our citizens can be cared for more quickly.”
More deliberation. More prayer. Another month. Another council meeting. This time after discussing the first two proposals at length, a very brave councilman stood up and said, “distinguished colleagues, while these first two proposals have great merit, after much meditation, fasting, and prayer, I believe I have an even better solution to our city’s problem with ‘the hole.’ You see, we want our citizens cared for quickly, and, well, hospitals are very expensive to build. So I suggest we fill in ‘the hole’ and go to the existing hospital with a team of engineers and workers where we will dig a new hole. That way ‘the hole’ will be beside the hospital, our citizens will have quick treatment for their injuries, and we’ll avoid the cost of a new hospital.” After quick deliberation, all councilmen were in favor of this last, and brilliant, proposal.
After my new friend told me this story, he said, “You see Dr. G, our citizens and officials want improvement, but they are stuck. They have a hard time accepting that improvement will require change. They want the improvement. They don’t want the change. There is strength for them in the status quo.”
It is critically important to challenge the status quo. While change doesn’t always result in improvement, most improvement requires change. The world-class leader knows that in order to move ahead, one must let go of the past and reach forward. Honor the past and don’t change everything. Keep the good. There are (probably) values, processes, policies, rules, laws, customs, etc. that are appropriate to keep. But don’t be afraid to challenge the status quo. Growth requires it. Improvement requires it. Excellence requires it.
People don’t resist change. They resist the belief that their new status will be worse if there is change. They resist change if they think they’ll make less money, have less importance, less power, less comfort, etc. If they believe the change will increase their status, they will pursue the change.
How do you challenge the status quo in your organization (whether it’s an organization of 10,000+ or 1 (namely, YOU))? Are you satisfied where you are or do you want to improve? To grow?
As always, the floor is open to your comments, suggestions, thoughts, and feedback.