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Monday, May 21, 2012

Comfort Zone or Rut?

The employee who does not try to reach outside of their comfort zone, endangers the success of the organization and stifles their career development.  Recognizing this form of complacency is step one.  Taking action on it is step two.  Getting buy-in is step three.  
Science-nerd TV show, The Big Bang Theory has a great snippet of dialog when Penny says”: … let’s try and get you out of your comfort zone.” Sheldon answers, ”Why would we want to do that? It’s called the comfort zone for a reason.”  In fact, why would we want our employees to operate outside of their comfort zone?  We spend lots of time training them to learn new things which are built upon the foundations that they have built over the years.  But I’ve seen your lab, and you have that one indispensable employee.  You know who I am talking about. When they are absent for vacation it is difficult for the lab to run smoothly, not Earth-shattering stuff, but none-the-less work does not flow right and sometimes it takes their back-up a little longer to find the file, run the blood processor,  or sometimes to even make the coffee turn out right.  I used to be in that situation too.  Then I changed it.

In my large operations services group, I had two directors, Albert and Forest.  Each was responsible for approximately half of the organization with over two dozen supervisors and a few hundred technical staff each.  When one was off fishing, their competent direct-reports knew which decisions to make and which to kick up the ladder.  They infrequently “cross-pollinated” with the other group.  These were not silos, but had divergent job functions.  I had an epiphany on my way to work one day when I was considering their value to the organization.  The company would be really screwed if one of these two got an offer they couldn’t refuse from some outside company.  I devised my plan and called a meeting when I arrived at work:
It went something like this: “Forest, It’s July 1 and on January 1 you are going to take over Albert’s job.  Albert, In 6 months you are going to take over Forest’s job.”  They replied: “But, but, but…” and offered a number of concerns about this out-of-the-blue idea and how they liked the staff that they had reporting to them now and did not want to give their right hand people up to the other person and so on.  My reasoning was that while they were experts in their areas right now, they would be more valuable to the organization if they were skilled in the other one’s job.  The company would end up with not an expert over each area, but rather have two experts for each area. Not only would they add value to the organization, but they also would vastly increase their own value.  I offered that they could return to their former positions in a year.

The instructions given had significant implications:  The move on January 1 had to occur without incident and be transparent to both the external clients and the internal study directors (P.I.’s) .  They had 6 months to prepare for the exchange and were challenged to not drop the baton.  While Albert and Forest were in reluctant agreement to go along, their soon-to-be- former right-handers were not happy about this.  The study directors were also concerned.  They too were in a comfort zone.  I was surely nuts to do this.

January 1 came around and Albert and Forest had spent the last 6 months getting familiar with the staff, the processes, the clients and the new subset of study directors.  As the deadline got closer the decisions made within their groups were done in consultation with each other.   While the event of the job exchange occurred without a hiccup or stumble, there was a more profound change that was brought to light:  Because Albert and Forest were operating in new territory, there were no assumptions made on the skills of their newly inherited staffers.  Some of the skills were observed with a new set of eyes and employees who might have been marginalized or not taken seriously were listened to with a new set of ears. 

I was only looking at the top level to have the greatest impact, but indeed this change positively affected the organization to a far deeper degree.  Even before a year had elapsed, neither party was interested in taking their former position back.  Everyone had been pushed out of their rut and were hitting top speed.

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