Leadership Caffeine™: 7 Odd Ideas to Help You Get Unstuck

A Cup of Leadership CaffeineWhile some argue that the natural order of life is towards entropy (a gradual decline into disorder), I would argue that the natural tendency of most humans is towards a kind of comfortable sameness and consistency in their daily lives.

The pursuit of different requires more energy than the descent into routine.  It is most definitely easier to not change.

There is comfort in routine. It feels good, like the hot shower that you take and the well-worn sweats that you put on after a long day at work.

We like to see familiar surroundings and familiar faces.  Consider a situation as trivial as your health club and your workout routine. There’s comfort in seeing the same, often nameless people at 5:30 a.m.  We belong, we are one of them, and everything is in balance when we assume our place with this familiar group.  Shift your workout to a mid-day routine, and the entire feel of the place changes, although the facilities and equipment are the same.  It’s different and slightly discomforting.

While comfortable and comforting, routine is the enemy of growth and progress and innovation. Routine is carried out in muscle memory.  Spend too much time doing the same things the same way and existence becomes one of pre-programmed decisions and choices that carve deep mental ruts in our minds that make change all the more difficult.

Routine is the enemy of growth.  The false comfort of sameness masks a slow decline and ultimately decay.

Top Performers Fight the Routine:

High performance individuals in all areas of life, from leaders to athletes to great individual contributors work hard everyday to fight the gravitational pull of getting stuck in the proverbial rut.

High performance teams and organizations find their comfort not in sameness or routine, but in embracing the ambiguity of the world and the constancy of change and the constant need to change.

Many of the best leaders that I’ve known, worked for or worked with go out of their way to push themselves and their teams to constantly do things different to keep their senses sharp, their individual and collective minds expanding and their ideas fresh.  They work hard at getting and staying unstuck!

7 Odd Ideas to Help Leaders and Teams Get Unstuck:

1.  Fight the tyranny of the Outlook calendar and recurring meetings.  There are few things worth talking about over and over again, and yet many in organizations perceive that they are doing their jobs by scheduling and conducting these self-aggrandizing events.  Fight the tyranny of others ruling your calendar!

2.  Rotate leadership.  More and more organizations are adopting an IDEO-inspired approach of choosing leaders for initiatives not based on seniority or level, but based on the group’s assessment of who the right leader is to help the team succeed with the initiative or project at hand.  Simple sounding…and in some organizations, heresy, but this is a true opportunity to innovate in management and importantly, to ensure that every new initiative benefits from a fresh way of looking at things.  This is also a powerful opportunity to help your team members build their own leadership skills.

3.  Break the back of bad-habit brainstorming! As odd as it sounds, I’ve observed a “sameness” and routine to brainstorming that is actually counter to the intended creative idea generating intent of the activity.  Groups come together and rehash the same ideas that they didn’t adopt in the last round.  There’s no edge, no excitement and nothing new as an outcome.  Try introducing anonymity into the process (variations of the Delphi technique); add outsiders/newcomers to the group and mix up methods for post-brainstorming idea selection.

4.   From time to time, do something completely off-task with your group. One manager creates vexing cases (business problems, people issues, strategy issues) that are different from but analogous to her work situation and facilitates the group through analysis and solution development.  Just getting people to think about other problems in other fictional settings is helpful in creating new pathways for problems in the current setting.

5.  Introduce your team to the management innovators and great leaders of today and yesterday.  Another manager regularly exposes his team to other leaders, cultures and approaches leveraging the massive volume of content available on YouTube and increasingly at places like Harvard and Stanford.  I do this in my management classes as well and long after the textbook and PowerPoint content is forgotten, people remember meeting (virtually) Jim Collins, Meg Whitman, John Chambers, Guy Kawasaki, Eric Schmidt, Jack Welch, Jim Goodnight and yes, even longtime favorite, Herb Kelleher.

6.  Play a game.  One of my favorite activities to run is the Dollar Bill Auction, which is guaranteed to both be fun and teach everyone about the realities and dangers of escalation of commitment.  Another of my favorite professionals, Kay Wais, at Successful Projects, LLC is creating games for Project Managers, and has recently introduced a well-received Project Risk board game.  I love the idea of introducing different ways of learning about important topics.

7.  Change up your personal routine.  I recall asking one of my senior managers what was up when I noticed a series of changes in his daily routine.  He was dressing different, arriving at work at a different time and even parking on the other side of the building.  His response was something to the effect of, “I’m pushing my team to mix things up in an effort to break out of our sales slump and it’s helping me to think differently by changing up my old routines.”  Sales improved significantly that next quarter.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

Take comfort in being uncomfortable about being comfortable. If you followed that, you get my point in this post.  We talk endlessly about the accelerating pace of change in our world and we see it in play daily.  And then many of us go back to our usual routine.  It’s time for you to recognize the need for change in yourself, and as a leader, for you to find ways to stimulate new thinking, promote different approaches and make the existence of change part of the excitement of working in this world.

What are your odd or not so odd ideas to stimulate change?

By |2016-10-22T17:11:55+00:00March 21st, 2010|Career, Leadership, Leadership Caffeine|13 Comments

About the Author:

Art Petty is a coach, speaker and workshop presenter focusing on helping professionals and organizations learn to survive and thrive in an era of change. When he is not speaking, Art serves senior executives, business owners and high potential professionals as a coach and strategy advisor. Additionally, Art’s books are widely used in leadership development programs. To learn more or discuss a challenge, contact Art.


  1. David Reuter March 22, 2010 at 12:04 am - Reply

    Art – Thanks for the thought provoking post as it is the exact kick that I needed to start off my week. There are times when I can sense that my team is falling into a rut. We are still productive, but we lose the innovation and excitement that is essential to the continual improvement process. Thanks for giving me some tips on how to insure that my team and I don’t fall into a comfortable routine.

    • Art Petty March 22, 2010 at 5:31 am - Reply

      David, thanks for reading and kudos for being uncomfortable about being comfortable! -Art

  2. Ali Ahmadian March 22, 2010 at 11:17 am - Reply

    Thanks for the post, Art. I completely agree with you that routine is enemy of growth and creativity. One challenge that we are having at work in breaking people’s routine is their resistance to change. We often try to play games but there are a few people who really just want to do their 8-5 and go home. They are great at what they do, so it’s hard to convince them that these exercises will pay off at the end and to convince them to stop what they are doing for a while to play and exercise their mind.
    I also like the rotational leadership which my boss has tried to implement. Unfortunately, this has also failed because due to having a small group, the “leader” often ends up with doing the task entirely and the leaders are not required to provide a report to show progress or end result.

    • Art Petty March 22, 2010 at 11:20 am - Reply

      Ali, thanks for reading. So, I’m interested in your or other readers thoughts on how to deal with the very real obstacles that you highlight. This would be easy if it weren’t for the people! The leader issue I suspect is much easier to cure than the involvement dilemma that you highlight. Don’t give up…and again, readers, help Ali out here! Thanks! -Art

  3. Ali Ahmadian March 22, 2010 at 11:34 am - Reply

    Thanks Art. To overcome the first obstacle, my boss has pretty much resorted in forcing people to accept it. They complain about it almost every time and gang up against the boss, but everybody seems to enjoy doing the exercises and after the exercise is over some have positive feedback and some go back to complaining!

    To overcome the second obstacle, I think we should have better teamwork in the the team and hold employees accountable for helping the leader for each project. Again, our team is very small and we get a lot of small and medium size projects at a time; so each leader is basically tasked with the project in its entirety.

  4. Jason Entler March 22, 2010 at 3:18 pm - Reply

    “The perfect is the enemy of good” ~Voltaire

  5. Ira March 22, 2010 at 5:09 pm - Reply

    Art, I loved the mental rut comment. I grew up ski racing and after making the same mistake run after run my coach would inform me that ”I was stuck in a mental rut”. Of course we were pretty independent at the time and the quote was useful for all sorts of different situations resulting from a lack of good judgment, I still use it today when I find myself or someone else spiraling downhill. I think it applies across the board. Another one of my favorite quotes deals with the definition of insanity, “doing the same thing over and over expecting a different result”. Thanks for the tips I definitely see the wisdom there.

    • Art Petty March 22, 2010 at 5:15 pm - Reply

      Ira, I very frequently resemble that remark of “getting stuck in a mental rut!” Thanks for reading and sharing your own insights. Best, -Art

  6. mark allen roberts March 23, 2010 at 7:42 am - Reply

    I agree, we seek paths of least resistance naturally, but leaders are wired to seek better ways.

    If you, as a leader can not rewire yourself, then you must hire a “heretic”. Having played this role in more companies than I would like to admit, Heretics have a singular focus; profitable growth. With that said, if you’re marketing sucks we don’t care it came from your brother in laws’ firm, we identify the issue and create a roadmap to break through.

    As heretics we do not believe in silos as a way to become a market leader, so we create cross functional teams and invite people to learn other areas. It’s amazing how less critical people are when they are exposed to another’s area.

    The way our brains work is we create new synapses every new challenge, every new thing we must learn.

    From a biblical stand point we grow quicker in life valleys than mountain top experiences.

    Good post, but a challenge for most.

    Mark Allen Roberts

  7. Brett McElhaney March 23, 2010 at 9:36 am - Reply

    Thanks for the post and the reminder that it is good (actually essential) to mix routines up a bit every now and then!

  8. […] and leadership. The first article is from Art Petty’s blog where he talks about “Leadership Caffeine: 7 Odd Ideas to Help You Get Unstuck“. “Take comfort in being uncomfortable about being comfortable” – Art […]

  9. Shannon Medlin March 31, 2010 at 1:41 am - Reply

    Art, wonderful article!

    Change is often perceived by many employees as a painful and frustrating process. Using cross functional teams, mixing it up and inspirational/motivational techniques are all good techniques. The most important part of the process is selling the idea that the change is beneficial to each individual.

    So, keep trying until you find something or a combination of things that reaches all your employees. Get to know what each employee values about their job and use it as leverage.

    What works for one may not work for all. One method may be to offer multiple methods for each employee to be updated on current and upcoming efforts. Instead of requiring physical attendance, you might try supplementing internal communications with Agile/SCRUM management apps, video recordings and message posts. Employees then have the choice of how they want to be involved.

    The second and most important part is accountability. Using project/time tracking boards and encouraging a game/like competition based on the resulting statistics, encourages productivity and new ideas.

    Bottom line, get your people excited! This article details some great ways to do this!

  10. […] Leadership Caffeine: 7 Odd Ideas to Help You Get Unstuck (artpetty.com) […]

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