image of a coffee cupBeware the dulling effect of a predictable routine on the performance of your team. It might just be the single most dangerous adversary standing between you and future success. 

A consistent operating routine is innately comfortable. It’s like that favorite sweater or, settling into your recliner in front of the game on Sunday afternoon. In business, the routine might sound like: monthly forecast meetings, quarterly updates, weekly staff meetings, March and October trade shows, summer strategy offsite, fall budgeting, year-end close. Rinse and repeat. The cycle is predictable and comfortable. It’s also predictably mind numbing.

We’re often at our best as leaders when we step into new roles with new teams.  Change is the order of the day, and managed properly, this opportunity for change creates a palpable level of excitement for everyone involved. Ideas fly, new approaches are introduced and for a period of time, there’s an environment rich in learning and experimentation. And then routine asserts its comfortable primacy and the sharp edge of creativity grows dull.

It’s this return to routine that is the problem. The most effective leaders in today’s ever-changing world cultivate an environment where anything resembling routine reflects an unproductive state of “running in place.” They challenge their team members to constantly “rethink” their assumptions and approaches and to try on new ideas in search of that competitive edge or performance break-through.

5 Ideas to Breakthrough Routine and Encourage Rethinking:

1. Encourage active consumption of ideas from the outside. Our information rich and device filled world allows a steady stream of great ideas from smart people to flow to you freely and without effort. Of course, you have to tune-in. Encourage your team members to find the smartest people in and out of your space, follow-them, engage with them and to take time every day to read or listen to what they have to say. And then create opportunities to relate the ideas and insights to your present challenges and put those ideas to work.

2. Experiment with structure. Structure is a powerful and often poorly wielded tool in promoting performance and learning. While perpetual reorganization is counter-productive, a state of frequent intra-team structural change can be invigorating. Ideally, let your team members provide direct input into changes. They often know best what might work better. Emphasize the positive… “what could we do more of, if we adapted our structure?” along with the negative of, “where must we improve?

3. Rethink position descriptions. (Sorry for the added work, HR!) There’s an endless cycle of status quo perpetuated by static position descriptions. While the world is changing at break-neck pace, we’re still busy drawing upon position descriptions created in different eras. Constantly rethink roles, accountabilities and measures, and engage your boss and your HR counterparts in defining the roles you need to move forward instead of relying upon those that brought you here.

4. Promote a “discussions must lead to actions” environment. Many teams and many professionals are lulled into a style of talking about potential changes or interesting ideas, but not understanding how to move them forward. This situation exists most often in environments where the history is one of command and control and where you want to facilitate a movement towards empowerment and action. Lead by example…encouraging that ideas translate to actions and discussions where oceans are boiled end in a verb phrase and clear ownership. “What should we do about that?” is a question you should wield liberally in this situation.

5. Introduce “Agile” approaches beyond your product development work. I love to encourage teams to operate with the core strategies and vision clearly in mind, while working within their own headlights (the distance you can see ahead while driving at night). This headlights approach encourages a rapid process of turning ideas into actions. It doesn’t require you to have all of the answers up-front, and it engages everyone in learning and participation. It also redefines your role as a leader to be actively involved rather than serving as a passive overseer.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

I’m an unabashed fan of promoting constant and rapid learning as a means to enabling high performance. Routine allows fine-tuning, yet for many of our firms and roles, we don’t have time to fine-tune. Lead with and promote a culture of “Rethink” to ensure that your routines don’t lull you into a false sense comfort. That comfort is the enemy of your future performance.

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