In the 80’s, the message was, “Dress for Success.” Dress at least one level up, make a great impression, get promoted. The concept focused on impressing the gatekeeper (your boss, or your boss’s boss), moving up, achieving success. “Upwardly mobile” was a phrase people used to describe themselves. Inherent in this approach was the thought that your success was dictated by how far up you climbed in one organization.
In the 90’s, the message was, “Be nimble, move fast, deliver quality.” Tom Peters really came into focus in the 90’s with his thoughts on the “nanosecond” 90’s. Big companies needed to find ways to “bob and weave,” to adjust to the ever-changing market dynamics. We all searched for ways to shift paradigms, boost quality, and invent new ways of streamlining processes.
One by-product of this nimble and fast-moving behavior was rapid employee movement. Corporate downsizing, upsizing, and reorganizations, along with an even faster corporate merger and acquisition pace, made remaining in one organization for a lifetime as remote as winning the lottery.
Dress for Success was out. Upward mobility was out. The era of the entrepreneur was upon us (even though it had been with us since the dawn of civilization). The corporate version, the “intrapreneur,” became a big thing. This was the person in the meeting who was slightly quirky, a bit edgy and imaginative, and didn’t mind “poking the bear” a bit. He or she operated with a flair that the corporate mindset both embraced and slightly feared. This was the person that would help the corporation remain relevant in the face of fast-moving competition, but might upset the apple cart along the way.
Somewhere in the late 90’s or early 2,000’s I started hearing that we should “think outside the box.” “Think Different” became Apple’s calling card. It was only that type of thinking that would yield meaningful results. Anything else was just window dressing, or “lipstick on a pig.” Look at the top 10 companies in terms of market value (both public and private) and it’s hard to argue with this sentiment.
But, even those “renegade” companies struggle to stay “different” over the long term. What once seemed new, even revolutionary, becomes the new norm. Soon, there’s a clamor for the next version, the new invention, the new product, the next “thing.”
What’s the answer to all of this? Organizations and entrepreneurs try to operate “outside of their comfort zone.” Yeah! That’s the ticket. If we can get everyone pushing outside their comfort zone, maybe that will result in something different, and cajole some new ideas into fruition.
But, the truth is that none of us like it outside our comfort zone. Most companies and shareholders prefer their comfort zone as well.
We constantly seek our comfort zone, even as we talk about pushing ourselves outside of it. If we happen to venture out and actually operate for a while in the hinterlands, our deep subconscious goal is to regain our footing, by seeking approval or acceptance of our crazy ideas back in the comfort zone.
We may get used to operating in a new zone and call that our new comfort zone…but, it’s still our (new) comfort zone. This is one definition of progress.
People have varying perspectives on what’s comfortable. The free climber is happiest and most “alive” when climbing a 3,000-foot rock face without ropes. Another person’s comfort zone is speaking in front of a large audience. Still another person’s idea of comfort is analyzing reams of financial data about the performance of their company.
What is your comfort zone? When are you the most at ease?
What are you doing to operate outside that zone?
When you find yourself outside your comfort zone, what’s your goal? To return to the safety of the comfort zone, or to extend your reach to an even more uncomfortable spot?
Look closely and be honest with yourself. You’re probably spending most of your time inside your comfort zone or trying to find your way back there.
It’s up to you to determine whether this is okay, or not.