How U.S. health reform efforts offer a new understanding of an age-old leadership problem: preservation of the status quo over and above innovation for the greater good.
With today’s signing into law of Obama’s long-awaited “health reform,” I find myself wondering why people leading our largest corporations, and the elected officials who regulate them, are so prone to tinkering with and preserving the status quo, rather than taking on more ambitious innovation or reinvention for a greater good.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for some change being better than no change, but I certainly wouldn’t assess what’s just been signed as innovation, and that's a missed opportunity.
My perspective is that of a small business owner, a health care consumer, and as an executive coach, working with corporate leaders day in and day out. I’ve been puzzling recently over the inverse relationship between entrenchment—how deeply a corporation’s hooks are buried into society—and innovation. The deeper the hooks, the less significant innovation is taken on.
I call this “status quo fetishism”—the tremendous drive among leaders of mature organizations to tinker with the norms of the day rather than transform their products and services into something better. They see any rapid or major change as a threat: destabilizing, too risky, or too hard.
Because my work lets me glimpse through the eyes of executives who are occasionally demonized by the media, congress, and, at times, the president, I’m inclined to take a more loving view. These execs are generally smart, capable, well-intentioned, solid people, facing the full catastrophe life presents each of us, just in their own way.
To know someone well is to understand what they fear, and what they desire. They, like all of us, mainly fear not getting what they want, or losing what they have. They desire to love and be loved by those around them. It’s no leap of faith to get why they’re quite cautious about jumping on the reinvention / transformation bandwagon.
Building modestly on what is, jiggering with it, making small corrections, yet preserving the corpus of it becomes their key driver—status quo is the object of their desire. Change, particularly wholesale change is ambiguous and unknown—and like so many of us, leaders of highly entrenched organizations (and their boards) hate the unknown, which addicts them to what they know … maybe it smells bad, but at least it’s familiar.
Indeed human nature is such that it takes a LOT of pain to propel a LOT of change. So in 2008, popular disgust with economic collapse, joblessness, and wars led to game-changing misery in America.
Steeped in that, our collective attachment to the status quo, arguably personified in George Bush's eight year tenure, simply snapped, and Barack Obama’s election capitalized on that, as we projected our pain-driven need for change on him. This was an historic moment that gave us rare and wonderful conditions for tremendous innovation or even reinvention of health care from a to z, something Clinton tried, but there was simply not enough angst going around.
Yet clearly his actions show President Obama to be quite the status quo fetishist himself. His “reforms” chose to make a deeper national investment in the existing systems—health costs, delivery, supplies, pharma, insurance, etc. Yes, it will be helping some, but it may just kick the can of this rare reinvention opportunity down the road into the futures of our children, and their children.
In fact, the up-front promises he made to insurers and big pharma (“don’t worry, single-payer’s off the table!”) reflect the administration’s—and industry’s—attachment to what is. It says that the larger and more entrenched in society your company is, the more likely you will not only be prevented from failing because you’re so big, but you will also be able to preserve the leaders, organizations, and systems that exist today, as amended.
And that, more than anything, is why we’re getting an expansion of sameness in health reform, and also why the good people leading large organizations, and those who regulate them, choose to preserve what is, rather than take on an equally enormous, and long overdue task of innovation / reinvention.
The need to jigger with, game, and otherwise buy into the way things are versus change the rules altogether is the nature of the corporate jungle, and can be traced through the stages of an organization’s growth:
- INNOVATION: The birth of an idea or wholesale reinvention of something that can make the world a better place, or simply deliver a tremendous product or service. People involved in this venture tend to say “Oh my god, this is truly ingenuous, and may change everything!”
- AUGMENTATION: Provided it makes it out of the early stage, there is a natural process of expansion / growth of the ideas into something larger. Those involved in this stage will say “It’s a wild ride! We need to nail things together better, though…”
- CONSOLIDATION: Once this growth period levels off, there is the desire to consolidate power, revise content, process, and systematize. Here’s where you hear, “Things are taking longer to get done, but at least we have some process.”
- SELF-PRESERVATION: This is where the shields go up, the hatches baton down, and the wagons are circled around the status quo. Changes made are incremental, rather than fundamental.” Getting stuck in this stage (rather than going back to INNOVATION) presents organizations and society with difficulties, particularly where there is potential for a greater good, or for doing harm. “Too big to fail,” characterizes many Stage 4 enterprises, as they are largest in the world, which means they have tremendous influence on all our lives.
Rare though it may be, it’s wonderful to see innovation, growth, consolidation, followed by more innovation—instead, consolidation is typically followed by an extreme need to latch onto the way things are.
Leaders of Stage Four companies certainly aren’t evil—they’re just stuck, and their challenge is to recognize that status quo fetishism is a long term threat to sustainability for all of us, and get back to the best of what they are: innovators with the vision and resources to change for the greater good. Demonizing them simply isn't helpful, and in fact, just makes them want to dig in further.
Let’s stop vilifying these leaders, starting loving them as a neighbor, help them recognize the syndrome, and take it as a lesson in leadership that helps us understand and recover as a society.
"The Recovering Leader:"