The comfort zone is a dangerous place to hang out.
One can rock along day-to-day with little to no disruption. Sure, once-in-a-while there might be a hiccup or two; but for the most part life is pretty good. The figurative trains run on time, Performance seems as good or better than last year. The climate / culture is pleasant enough.
When the comfort zone is good, every day is like a day at the beach.
But doesn’t something inevitably interrupt life as we come to expect it? It might be a competitor infringing on once-sacred territory. Or an unforeseen turn by the market. Or a client reorganizing.
Not to worry. We’re still plenty comfortable.
Then something else happens. What seemed nothing more than a hiccup turns into an issue. Or a crisis.
It rarely happens overnight. It creeps. And seeps. It is hardly noticed at first. Then it is the subject of analysis.
By the time we huddle, dissect and debate solutions, things aren’t so comfortable anymore. We find ourselves smack-dab-in-the-middle of an uncomfortable new normal.
This is what the comfort zone does. It distorts perspective. At its most insidious it messes with my view of my reality. Rise and shine in the comfort zone day after day, and soon one begins to think this is the only reality that exists.
The comfort zone is insulated. The idea that cornerstones might be shifting, or that structural change might be necessary is impossible to fathom. What we do has always worked.
The reasoning is often that the topsy-turvy of disruption won’t last forever. The pendulum will swing. Things will return to the way they were.
The comfort zone can stifle innovation.
The difficulty is compounded by the fact that the longer everything rocks along at an acceptable level — though disruption abounds — the more perilous conditions can become.
When It Becomes Uncomfortable, It’s Too Late
If you’re reading this, chances are you have some first hand experience with the comfort zone. And let’s be clear — its amenities are to be enjoyed. But fail to respond to consequential change until things are uncomfortable, and we’re susceptible to the peril of knee-jerk attempts to fix things overnight.
And quick-fixes rarely fix anything.
So how does an organization, a team, or for that matter, an individual avoid the perils of the comfort zone?
Whatever might be said about Steve Jobs, it is doubtful he spent much time in the blind spots of a comfort zone. In his famous and oft quoted 2005 Stanford commencement address, Jobs spoke to the challenges that often accompany achievement. His advice?
“Stay hungry. Stay foolish.”
And while (at least from where I sit) his daily walk hardly seems a model for exuberant living, Jobs’ admonition is taken from the title of a book by entrepreneur Rashmi Bansal. It is about maintaining the spirit and vision that characterize the early hours of new adventure.
We can debate the use of terms like “foolish.” But while we’re debating, we know the reality — everything changes. Empires fall. Once revered companies disappear. Even what seem to be the best personal relationships can fail.
At least one antidote to the perils of the comfort zone is the appetite that characterizes new adventure.
Perhaps what we need — individually and institutionally, personally and professionally — is a youthful vision that sees beyond successes and challenges of the moment, and perceives the new beginnings that accompany each day.