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If You Don’t Ask Why, The Status Quo Prevails

I’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...

I’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. I think the academic and business artificial distinction between the Arts and Sciences is a classic example of not asking Why. (Yes, really it’s more like Arts or Sciences). This distinction permeates so much of our culture and lasts way beyond college. As students graduate and go into the world, they maintain this lie of Arts or Sciences. This is a powerfully and dangerously false dichotomy.

At a very basic level, go back to your college education. There were art classes (humanities included) and sciences. But, when you were learning about microbes, molecules, trajectory, anatomy, etc…. did you learn through looking at pictures? Isn’t Gray’s Anatomy a fabulous art and anatomy book? Think of surgical simulator applications? Very visual, very artistic and definitely design-oriented to make it easy for the user to follow and learn. Recently, a friend of mine wrote a great post on the Art of Science. He was a biology major in college, with a passion for nature since childhood. He’s been a fisheries biologist, environmental scientist and worked on robotics projects…and artist. You can find his fabulous artwork here. Art and Science require common mindset traits: astute observation, sense-making, curiosity, questioning, experimentation, iteration, and many more.

Imagine what can happen when you start asking Why we separate Art and Science! Fortunately we are seeing the results of this questioning. The arts and sciences are putting the “A” of Art into STEM (Science Technology Engineering Math) to make STEAM. Blessedly, I’m in the midst of a lot of STEAM activity and see the power of the AND. These AND solutions are creating products and services for people all over the world based on science and design so that the product meets a real need by real people that they will really use every day instead of some theoretical idealistic solution everyone oohs and aahhs over and never uses.

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.

Even the age-old theory of right-left brain (art and science) is being questioned. So, as you look at your world, as you evaluate the choices you make, either by covert or overt assumptions, ask Why? There very well could be a great reason, or it may be an artifact of history. 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.

Image courtesy of Sarah Shreves.

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