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?