There is a malady suffered by most of us that is called “time inconsistency.” It is a cognitive bias that creates a tendency to discount the future in favor of the present. The idea is that we are inclined to accept a smaller reward in the present, rather than the potential of a much larger reward in the future. Surveys have shown that when given the choice, most people choose to take $10 today, rather than $50 in a year. In other words, we’re more apt to “play it safe,” than to move out ahead of the crowd.
In a broader sense, this “time inconsistency” often manifests itself as a commitment to the present, in the form of the status quo. Despite intuitive understanding that the status quo can never be permanent, there are many who tie their future to the status quo — the here and now — even when they know the future will be different. Greek philosophers had a word for this attitude: akrasia. It means to take action that is contrary to one’s own best interests.
Certainly the challenge of conceiving workable new ideas that would change the status quo is more difficult than continuing to simply do what is already being done. Acceptance of and commitment to the status quo becomes a bunker designed to shelter one from the problematical task of coming up with new ideas that will be needed to deal with change. The assumption is that it is safer to “do it the way we have always done it.” But is it?
While it may seem safe in the short term to hunker down in the bunker of the status quo, that strategy can produce serious long-term problems. There may be significant changes occurring outside the bunker that go unrecognized and ignored until it is too late. Also, the residue of a status quo bunker-mentality is crippling bureaucracy.
When one is committed to defending the status quo there is a strong tendency to ignore and discount any activity that might challenge its validity. It is like starting with the conclusion – the status quo is just fine – and then only looking for evidence to prove that point. When new ideas do take hold, the result is to leave the status quo frozen in the past. The circus-like environment manifested in the current Republican presidential nomination process is a case in point. Those candidates clinging to the establishment status quo – ignoring changes in the electorate – find themselves trailing badly in the polls to those who seek to disrupt the status quo.
Maintaining the status quo requires a system of checks and controls designed to assure that things continue to be done the way they have always been done; that’s called bureaucracy. Bureaucracy sets up multiple layers of resistance to defend the status quo that either deflects or thwarts the introduction of new ideas. But it is even worse than that. Bureaucracy is like the Ebola virus of the business world. Once it is released into the environment of the status quo it spreads and grows exponentially to the point where it not only kills new ideas, but eventually turns on its host – the status quo – rendering it incapable of doing what it has always done.
It’s not that the status quo is inherently bad and should be rejected out of hand. The status quo does identify the basics of a philosophy or actions that worked well the past and it provides guidelines for continuing to do the same. The problem with being inexorably committed to the status quo is that things do change and by its nature the status quo rejects change. Rather than accepting the challenge to come up with new ideas, those devoted to the status quo retreat to their bunker with the cry, “Everything will be OK if we just get back to the basics.” That’s a good idea, unless the basics have changed as they often do. The problem is that if we are hiding in the bunker of the status quo, we can never recognize and respond when the basics do change.