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HMW Kill the Status Quo?

My design partner inadvertantly spurred this rant. (Thanks, David!) To support a new feature, I spent the better part of an afternoon mapping out a new process on a glass board. The new process I mapped incorporates existing processes that are controlled by others within our organization. The end result is a comprehensive picture of an experience that is constrained by the status quo — assumptions about how things have to be.

The next morning I find my work had been vandelized with purple post-its. Each of these post-its contained a question that started with “HMW”.

  • HMW allow for a customer to stop the process?
  • HMW notify customers of the decision?
  • HMW show the status?

HMW = How Might We

What the hell is “HMW”? It took me longer than I’d like to admit to figure out what this acronym meant. Then it clicked. “HMW” translates to How Might We…1

  • How might we do this one task differently? What are the possibilities here?
  • How might we accomplish this step if we have some other constraint? What if this experience had to be completed in less than 60 seconds? How could we get all of the information we need without ever asking the customer for a single item?
  • How might we make it easier for the user? As a customer, what would the ideal experience be for me to accomplish my goals? Your back-end processes driving this experience are irrelevant to me and the answer to this HMW.

HMW is about dreaming. HMW is about challenging the status quo.

The danger of the status quo

Why is challenging the status quo so important? Why do we (I) even care?

The status quo of workplace culture is to not challenge the status quo. Being the one to do so can be risky to ones career. Yet, adhering to the status quo never leads to innovation. Quite the opposite. Adhering to that’s how we’ve always done it thinking is the wrong kind of constraint. It leads to stagnation and, ultimately, the demise of your organization.

Succintly, the safety of the status quo is risky behavior. Maintaining the status quo is built on assumptions and not data — assumptions that the original decision was right and continues to be right. Even when the original decision was based on data, you shouldn’t assume that it continues to be the correct path going forward.

Normalized deviance

Accepting and propagating the status quo when the original decision was wrong leads to the normalization of deviance.

“Social normalization of deviance means that people within the organization become so much accustomed to a deviant behavior that they don’t consider it as deviant, despite the fact that they far exceed their own rules for the elementary safety.”

Diane Vaughan, Ph.D.

The most famous example, and possibly one of the most tragic, is the 1986 space shuttle disaster. The disaster was caused by a failure in the joints on the solid rocket boosters. During exhaustive testing by both NASA and the private contractor, the connective material was found to be faulty. Yet, with repeated successful shuttle launches, the perceived risk the material presented became (unoffically) acceptable. The status quo of poorly performing material directly led to the disaster. (Further reading here.)

At worst, accepting the status quo can cost lives. At best, it prevents your organization from finding new and better solutions.

Challenging the status quo needs to be the status quo.

The art of innovation

“If I’d asked people what they want, it would have been a faster horse.”

Henry Ford

Peter Thiel asks interviewees what they believe to be true that everyone else thinks is false. In addition to gaining insight into someone’s world view, seeing the world different — going against the status quo — leads to innovation. These are not merely incremental advancements, but leaps from one point to another that, in hindsight, appear to be illogical.

In one of his TED talks, Guy Kawasaki advocates fostering a perspective that enables you to jump from one innovation curve to the next.

“When we were creating the Macintosh, we weren’t trying to make a slightly better Apple II, or a slightly better MS DOS machine. We were trying to jump to the next curve of personal computing.”

Guy Kawasaki, The art of innovation at TEDxBerkeley

Kawasaki gives the example of the ice industry. Over the course of ~75 years, we saw three innovation curves.

  • Late 1800s: ice was harvested from frozen lakes.
  • 1930s: ice was produced in factories.
  • Late 1950s: ice was readily available in the household refrigerator.

None of the organizations that thrived in each of these curves made it to the next curve. As Kawasaki points out, it’s because organizations define themselves based on what they do, not the benefit they provide. By accepting the status quo of what your organizations does, you’ll fail to make the leap to the next innovation curve.

“How do people know what they want until I show it to them?”

Steve Jobs

The dangerous existence of the Contrarian

Most won’t welcome attempts to move their cheese.

People generally don’t appreciate being asked uncomfortable questions — because having to explain why something is the way it is, is work. The experience will feel like you are impeding progress. But asking why something is the way it is can uncover practices that don’t need to exist.

By all means, though, avoid playing the devil’s advocate. Being a contrarian for the sake of contrarianism isn’t the goal. And, if you’re labeled a contrarian, expect your role and influence to be diminished.

Instead, be humble and make it known that you seek to understand when asking the uncomfortable questions. It’s seeking to understand that can reduce the resistance to exploring why a given assumption exists. And when others are part of that discovery, the desire to change for the better won’t be a solitary journey.

HMW kill the status quo?

HMW isn’t about having arguments, nor is it about advocating positions you don’t hold. It is, however, an approach to thinking through how you would solve a problem if the situation was different, if the fundamental assumptions driving it were changed.

  • HMW foster a culture of identifying and challenging assumptions? Be intentional with this. Formalize ceremonies to ask the 5 Whys.
  • HMW embrace contrarians and contrarian thinking? Identify contrarians in your midst. Seek out their perspective. Ask them to ask (uncomfortable) questions.
  • HMW leverage data to validate/disprove assumptions that drive the status quo? Assumptions that drive status quo behaviours that need to be changed are not data-driven. Don’t be afraid to consult the data. (Just be quick about it.)

It’s not easy, nor quick, to change culture. But it will be necessary if your organization wants to make the leap to the next curve.


1 I’ve since learned that HMW is part of the Google Design Sprint. To learn more about this process,check out Sprint: How to solve big problems and test new ideas in just five days by Jake Knapp.