In their quest for market dominance, the majority of businesses tout how they’re “unique,” “different,” or in some way “better” than their competition. However, when you ask for specifics about what makes them stand out, the answers are usually the same. “Best customer service,” “highest quality,” and “lowest prices” are the standard, generic responses.

The fact is that, aside from specific product or service offerings, most companies are exactly the same. Today’s business world is a homogenized culture that prohibits the true diversity of any individual or department to shine. Business owners and managers enforce rules that stifle what is unique and creative in their team so as not to offend any outside group. They dictate regulations about company dress, speech, practices, and even office decorations in an attempt to create safe and predictable environments that limit risk. The irony is that in the midst of enforcing all these standard operating practices, many business leaders actually wonder why their company is, at best, mediocre.

When employees encounter such environments, complacency sets in and productivity declines. Sure, many of them may enter the company full of motivation and great ideas; however, as the top executives pigeonhole them into certain departmental tasks, the employees lose that initial spark of creativity. They begin to do the same procedure day after day, and as they feel more and more like a mere drone, they become less observant and less willing to break the status quo. No wonder so many companies today are unremarkable.

Who is to blame for this state of affairs? While finger pointing is easy to do, we can’t completely blame the companies or the employees for such complacency and mediocrity at work. Why? Because we can trace the root of this problem to our current society itself.

In today’s culture, people are afraid to stand out, be different, or make waves because we’ve conditioned them to believe that exhibiting any kind of behavior deviant from the norm can be a crime. We arrest such people and contain or punish them for a specific period of time. However, what business leaders need to understand is that “offense” is stimulating in an otherwise static, controlled, and predictable environment. It’s when we introduce behaviors or practices that go against the flow that we inspire our people to function beyond what anyone thought was possible. The keys are to offend — or change — within limits and to do no harm.

A Challenge For Change

Change of any kind scares most people. However, if you want your company to stand out, you must challenge people’s thoughts, challenge the norm, and do something different. Because people are so careful not to rock the proverbial boat, they end up doing nothing at all and remain exactly where they began. There’s no progress, no forward movement, nothing at all to make people take notice.

This is not to say, however, that the change you initiate must be monumental to be effective. In fact, sometimes the smallest change can compound and deliver massive results. The goal is to look around your organization, discover where complacency exists, and then challenge your team to make a change. Release the reigns of control so they unleash their creativity and unlock the barriers to their potential. As long as everyone has the same goal in mind, you can allow more leeway and attain better results.

If the thought of change frightens you or your team, put the following principles to work. Before long, you’ll discover just how stimulating and rewarding change can be.

Teach Discerning Followership

Regardless of your position, sometimes you’ll need to lead and other times you’ll need to follow. You will play both roles in the course of your career. Life is full of choices, and your character will determine the path you choose. In those instances where you choose not to lead, be a discerning follower instead.

A discerning follower perceives or recognizes that something is different than the norm, measures that difference against the yardstick of right values and principles, and then consciously makes a decision whether to follow or resist. It’s about having the courage to trust your gut and instincts rather than solely rely on fact and logic. When you follow discerningly, you feel when change is right, listen to that instinct, and then make your move.

Keep It Simple

An organization that centers on self-awareness and that thinks in terms of the other person has the greatest success with change. On the other hand, those organizations that focus on complex systems of right and wrong are typically the least adaptive.

While rules and regulations do have their place in the business world, they need to be loose guidelines rather than stringent policies. When you keep the rules simple, people will feel the freedom they have and they will be willing to take risks for positive change. They’ll bring good judgment and creativity to the workplace, which will position your company ahead of the others.

Start Small And Observe

To get an initial feel for how impactful change can be to your organization, start with a small area that requires change. This will give your team a small taste of what they can accomplish when they invite change into their day. As the results occur, observe how they bubble up and influence other people and departments for the better. Document the positive effects the change has on not only profits or market share, but also on the employees themselves. As people get used to change occurring and experience all the positive results change can encourage, their desire for more change will grow.

Unlocking Barriers To Change Brings Success

Business structures that are adaptive and that are grounded in life affirming principles breed company warriors that thrive on offense and change. In a day when only the strongest companies survive, it is to your advantage to break out of the safe and predictable operational methods, challenge the status quo, dare to stimulate, and shake up the homogenized rut prevalent in today’s business world. Only when you have the courage to initiate change on every level will you and your company not only survive, but also thrive for years to come.

Sanderford-O'Connor is a 16-year veteran of the California Department of Corrections who rose through the ranks to manage a $14 million annual budget. She is the principal of ClariQuest Consulting, which helps organizations unlock barriers to business success. She can be reached at 916-961-5394 or visit

Publication date: 04/21/2003