The following is a guest piece by Harvard Business Review columnist Deborah Mills-Scofield.
If you haven’t seen the new Les Misérables movie you should. It powerfully portrays many of today’s issues: poverty, inequality and inequity, the struggle of self-organized groups versus command-and-control and liberty to name a few. Most profoundly, it speaks to the overwhelming and dangerous hold of the status quo on our minds and souls.
The battle between the new and the status quo is epitomized in the relationship between Javert, a policeman ingrained the life of Law and Order, and Valjean, a reformed ex-con who through grace and freedom has become a just and caring businessman in the community. Javert, unable to receive Valjean’s grace and freedom, actually kills himself instead of accepting a world where compassion and understanding counterbalance the rule of Law, a world most of us prefer.
So what does this have to do with business? A lot. On first blush, the lesson is the stranglehold of the status quo binding us to the present, and past, so we are unable to see the benefits of anything different. The present may not even be great, but we know it and how to deal with it.
Change is scary, threatening. We will have to learn new things and maybe we won’t be able to. Then what? It also means risk, risk means failure and failure is punished. None of these options are good.
So what do we, our people, our organizations do? We shut down. We show up, do our jobs, follow policies and procedures and check our hearts, souls and even minds at ‘the door’. We know what that does to growth, profitability and purpose!
On a deeper level, it highlights the death throws of a binary world so many of us cling to: yes and no, either or, good and evil, America vs. the USSR.
The new world is grey. It requires integrating disparate ideas, accepting paradoxes, looking for the And Both instead of Either Or, combining things in new ways. . . which leads to freedom, to innovation and growth and solutions to real customer needs and wicked problems.
It leads to loosening some of the harsh, unjust shackles of the Law through Compassion. Let’s face it, it’s much easier to live in a black and white world where we know the rules, we know what’s expected, the probability of failure is much lower.
That binary world doesn’t exist anymore and actually, never did. It was an illusion that lasted a century. Increasingly, we define our jobs, blur lines of responsibility, integrate once discrete disciplines (e.g., design and engineering), and experiment and iterate instead of perfect. While a grey world may be scary to some, it unleashes innovation and new ways to realize profits that can create meaningful outcomes.
Javert’s Suicide Soliloquy shows the glaring self-destruction inherent in status quo’s black and white world – a world so stark that Javert views freedom as another chain (“hold dominion”) and chooses death:
What sort of devil is he [Valjean] to have me caught in a trap and choose to let me go free…
Vengeance was his and he gave me back my life!
Damned if I’ll live in the debt of a thief! Damned if I’ll yield at the end of a chase…
How can I now allow this man to hold dominion over me…
He gave me my life. He gave me my freedom…
And must I now being to doubt, who never doubted all these years?
The world I have known is lost in shadow…
So what does this mean to us? Hopefully, none of us will hold so desperately to the status quo that’d we’d rather literally die than adapt.
But the intellectual and emotional stranglehold of the status quo is killing our people, our organizations and us. Our world is undergoing shifts unparalleled in our lifetime and while for many it’s frightening beyond belief.
What will you do to help those around you not just accept but thrive in the new grey world? How will you help them free their hearts, minds and souls to create meaningful solutions for your customers, for themselves and for the world?
Deborah Mills-Scofield is a strategy and innovation consultant to mid/large corporations and partner in Glengary LLC, an early-stage venture capital firm. She’s also a Visiting Scholar at Brown University and Adjunct Professor at Oberlin College. Her patent from AT&T Bell Labs was one of the highest revenue-generating patents for AT&T and Lucent.