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What is the "status quo" organisation?

What do we mean by status quo?

We mean the prevailing norm and idea of our time. We mean the typical characteristics born of an ingrained, unchallenged orthodoxy about how we run organisations. It is deeper than how they “should” be run, it is the assumption that there is no alternative. It just is.

What are its characteristics?

If you listed the fundamental nature of a variety of regular organisations you know, what would be the common ground?

That would be the status quo. The list would include characteristics such as:

  • The control of behaviour and decision making by a hierarchical structure or culture
  • Management by objectives
  • Incentivisation as an acceptable motivator: pay, behavioural change, ideas etc.
  • A primary concern for shareholder value: profit and growth
  • Linear thinking for everything from internal processes to market exploration
  • A (supposed) meritocracy offering (a supposedly unbiased) “vertical” career pathway
  • A competitive environment both within and without the organisation
  • “Employment” as the dominant exchange between individual and organisation
  • Personal needs trumped by an employer’s during “working hours” and, often, beyond
  • Centrally organised strategic planning, resource allocation, governance, etc
  • Specialised departments; outwardly looking (e.g. sales) and inwardly looking (e.g.HR)
  • A focus on old ideas (business as usual) as opposed to new ones (innovation)
  • An unquestioning acceptance that this is the best and only way to operate

What is its heritage?

To understand the status quo, look to its origins: the industrial revolution and the sudden need to meet the huge upscaling in human endeavour required to operate mass production. In particular, the need to increase production per person, while reducing inefficiency and error. Sound familiar to your organisation? Now you know where it originates.

Everything you accept as normal (and much of the list above) was an innovation created within a short space of time to meet that particular challenge in that particular environment. The approach, pioneered by men like Frederick Winslow Taylor, has its parentage in the scientific revolution and the accompanying worldview that saw everything as a machine that could be broken down into parts, tested and improved at will. The perspective that we can compartmentalise organisations is why people use the metaphor of changing organisations from machines to living systems.

But the status quo, whilst wildly successful during the 20th century, is no longer contextually appropriate. Its dehumanising nature has always been a problem. But it’s no longer a problem just for this reason. The pace of change, the stakeholder environment and the social, economic and technological context are overwhelming business as usual. The choice is now very stark: organisations must move away from status quo, or, at some point, they will almost certainly fail.

“Why do our organisations seem less adaptable, less innovative, less spirited, and less noble than the people who work within them? What is it that makes them inhuman? The answer: a management ideology that deifies control.”

Professor Gary Hamel

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  1. John Featherby

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