The Slippery Slope of Not Asking Why

by Deborah Mills-Scofield

The Slippery Slope of Not Asking WhyI’d like to think I’m good at challenging the status quo. To get regular reality checks, I spend time with college kids creating for-profit and not-for-profit businesses aimed at solving wicked problems. They truly challenge the status quo and it is, fortunately, invigoratingly contagious.

Sometimes (most of the time?), the status quo is so deeply engrained we don’t realize it – so deeply inherent in our worldview that when confronted with it, we view questioning it as heretical. This hit home in the span of less than a week when 4 separate ‘events’ screamed Status Quo Alert at me:

  • In finishing Raj Patel’s, The Value of Nothing: How to Reshape Market Society and Redefine Democracy, one of our society and economy’s basic assumptions, the concept of private property, is challenged. Raj’s thesis is that the privatizing/enclosing of public/open spaces turned labor from being production for oneself to being an asset (human capital) for someone else. So, Why don’t we question if this concept still works in its current form, if it couldn’t be adapted to a new model, and what the consequences have been?
  • The fledgling entrepreneurs, social and ‘regular’ (for lack of a better word; I actually think it’s all social), I met during my “office hours” were trying to truly understand customers’ needs from the customers’ worldview – with their constraints, incomes, barriers and opportunities – instead of from the students’ perspective of ‘what’ these people might need. So, Why do we assume that we know what’s best, that the way we view the world is either the ‘right’ way or the ‘best’ way?
  • My weekly article ‘catch-up’ included several on corporate culture and leadership that were all just common sense and the Golden Rule. So,Why do we have to elevate basic decency in how we treat one another to great rules for leadership? Has it gotten so bad that widely respected journals publish posts telling us to say thank you to employees, to behave consistently, to smile because it’s contagious? Where was I when these fundamentals of human kindness became leadership virtues?
  • Bitcoin is on a tear with it’s value fluctuating as everyone tries to make sense of what it means. Last year, the ECB (European Central Bank) released its study of Bitcoin, a virtual currency and actually said, “The theoretical roots of Bitcoin can be found in the Austrian [sic] (Menger, Mises, Hayek) school of economics,” (pg. 22)! Then they proceeded to say why Bitcoin, and its ilk, would never work. Their assumptions are guided by increasingly irrelevant and outdated ideas instilling a need to protect the world where they think they have power (and seemingly no imagination). The cracking of the Status Quo’s walls were loud and clear to many… except the ECB. So, Why do we assume that currencies are tied to nation-states, to physical boundaries? We can see clearly today how the walls are crumbling.

My husband tells me I ask Why too often. Why is how we learn, discover, and challenge the Status Quo. In one of my first projects at Bell Labs, I was the system engineer on three different messaging services. Why did I have to create three different architectures for three different messaging services? Ok, the media were different (voice, text, image) but simply tagging the media type in a header all the services understood meant one architecture, shared messages, and media conversion as necessary! Voila!Done and on to the next project! Result? Big revenues for AT&T and my patent on a plaque for me.

Kids ask Why all the time and we expect that from them.  At some point, it seems we stop questioning and expecting Whys. When we stop asking Why, we risk the Status Quo becoming so entrenched that we accept it as the way it Has to be and can Only be. So, this next week, try to ask Why just two times a day – give it a whirl and see what happens. Next week, ask your team to ask Why twice a day and see what happens. And the week after? You know the drill!

image credit: high mountains image from bigstock

published in Switch and Shift

BETA - Global Innovation Management Institute certification

Wait! Before you go.

Choose how you want the latest innovation content delivered to you:


Why am I a VC?Deb, founder of Mills-Scofield LLC, is an innovator, entrepreneur and non-traditional strategist with 20 years experience in industries ranging from the Internet to Manufacturing with multinationals to start ups. She is also a partner at Glengary LLC, a Venture Capital Firm.