The Toxic Defense of the Status Quo
It’s insidious. It lurks in damp, dark corners and often goes undetected until it is too late. The symptoms are obvious to those that have encountered it before but a lack of communication often allows it to fester for years right under the nose of upper management. It’s the status quo.
Unless your organization is dedicated to continuous improvement the status quo is a constant. In order to realize continuous improvement every person in your organization has to be dedicated to positive change. It has to be so engrained in the culture of your organization that it becomes second nature. This mentality is rare but it does exist and, as a consultant with over ten years of experience, I can personally vouch for the benefits that this ubiquitous attitude can bring to a development organization.
Unfortunately, I see the opposite situation much more often. The insidious agent that I’ve described is not so much the status quo itself but the internal, steadfast defense of it. The reason that some people actively defend the status quo is simple - laziness. The status quo is comfortable. The status quo is familiar. Real change and continuous improvement require real work. It requires continuous work at all levels of an organization from support staff all the way up to the chief executive above and beyond what these agents are expected to deliver as defined in their job descriptions.
This defense of the status quo is highly contagious and has the ability to spread like wildfire throughout any organization if not rapidly identified and controlled. It forms in colonies over time and, in advanced cases, takes not only a toll on the organization’s efficiency and productivity but takes on an extremely dangerous political facet. Once this cancer has spread into the political arena it often leads to the unceremonious quashing of those that are dedicated to realizing positive change. At this point the cancer has metastasized.
I pride myself and my consulting firm in delivering quality services and utilizing the best tools, both hard and soft, that we have at our disposal to consistently provide value. As obvious as having a focus on delivery seems this focus has become scarce in modern consulting practices.
A few months ago, my firm was engaged by a rather interesting client to come in and help augment their existing development staff and be agents of change in improving their overall quality. After meeting with the CIO and Director of Software Development we felt that their dedication to continuous improvement was genuine and were excited to help them accomplish their goals. These individuals by their own accord were ready to sacrifice and step outside of their comfort zones to not only achieve short-term wins but to launch a grassroots campaign to improve the organization culturally. Within days we were actively educating in-house resources on and implementing Agile practices and taking steps to educate and mentor their teams in order to help them produce higher quality software products. For the most part, our assistance was well received. However, it became obvious early on that there was a small yet relatively powerful cadre of developers that were resistant to change and were readily defending the status quo that we had been brought in explicitly to break.
As a consulting firm, it would have been easy for us to pump the brakes, accept the status quo and continue to bill at the same rate while dramatically decreasing our throughput. The reality, however, is that it is not who we are. We have worked extremely hard to foster a culture of continuous improvement and pride in our services and to do so would feel unnatural for our consultants. It was not easy to do but I am proud to say that our consultants are not only dedicated to continuous change but are passionate about it. If the status quo is cancer, our goal was to be the trained surgical hands responsible for removing it.
While at first the leadership was resistant to the rising voices of mediocrity this small group of anti-change agents eventually won out and, under questionable circumstances, our contract was not extended as expected. I have to admit - I was disappointed. I am still disappointed. Upon departing, I requested a brief meeting with the CIO to discuss the results of our engagement. During this meeting I expressed my disappointment not only in our inability to mobilize the culture shift that we had all bought in to but also his inability to see the forest for the trees. I also warned him that there were in fact subversive elements within his organization that would continue at all costs to defend the status quo and create obstacles to change. I also warned him that if at some point in the future he decides to hire another consulting firm at a similar caliber of our team that history would indeed repeat itself. He thanked me for my advice, we collected our final check and as far as I was concerned, that was the end of it.
This story is all too common. In my professional career I can count at least three similar stories that I was personally involved in. Change is difficult. Lazy people don’t like difficult things. By this logic, lazy people don’t like change. This simple mantra isn’t specific to software development organizations. It’s not even specific to organizations. It is a human inclination and it is and continues to be an impediment to continuous improvement.
If you take anything away from this cautionary tale it is to constantly be on the look out for those that adhere to the status quo. It takes a certain combination of this quality with an opportunistic personality to cause this sort of organization-wide damage but it does happen. As a matter of fact, I am willing to bet that you have at some point been somehow involved in the political fallout that it can inevitably create. These subversive elements are toxic. They are the undetected cancer that grow within your organization and, like cancer, they have the uncanny ability to spread rapidly.