We are operating within our comfort zone when we feel competent performing a given task. Beyond our comfort zone is the unknown. Here is both opportunity and threat. Here we look upon the possibility of huge success and utter disaster. Opportunity to grow, learn, succeed, and achieve. But also a place of risk. A place where we might fail, come up short, or embarrass ourselves. If we're completely honest with ourselves, most of us work pretty hard to plan and organize our lives in such a way as to remain within our comfort zone. Most of us don't like surprises. We value predictability. We seek to minimize risk of all forms. And while it's true that we can and do learn in our zone of comfort, it is also true that we don't learn as fast as when we are beyond it.
Managers also like to make performance commitments for their organizations that are fairly easily achieved. They add a cushion of error, a margin of safety to their budgets and forecasts. Good managers look for opportunities to stretch their better workers. But the risk of personal or organizational failure is seldom very large.
Interestingly, everyone's comfort zone is different. The very idea of public speaking or singing can produce moist palms and racing hearts for many. Others welcome such opportunities: Go on Television? "Great, what time?" So one of the powerful aspects of teams is that they can project a collective comfort zone footprint that is much larger than any single individual's zone.
Both individuals and teams grow and learn faster when they are operating outside their comfort zone. We get excited when we surpass the performance expectations that we thought we were capable of achieving. When this occurs we start to think, "That was great. We're hot stuff. We can go beyond that achievement". And because we have achieved the seemingly impossible once, we feel more confident about being able to do it again. Then when we share that confidence and excitement with other team members we all feel more energy, more commitment, and more enthusiasm about the new stretch target.
Is every team that attempts the seemingly impossible going to reach its target? Not always is the answer. Although most will come close. And in trying is risk. Things will be different. We don't like change, but one thing is certain: We can't possibly reach impossible targets by doing things the way we've always done them. And out there somewhere way beyond our comfort zone is great risk and possibly terror. Most individuals would never willingly go that place of overwhelming fear alone. But can a group of people go there together? The answer is yes, if the rewards are collectively thought to be great enough. The truth is that a team can take on a much higher level of risk than any individual can.
Given that all this is true, management should seek opportunities to challenge teams to go after goals that seem impossible. Management needs to think hard about selecting goals that, if attained, will make a very real difference in organization's performance, customer satisfaction, or market share. Clear, measurable goals that a team can use to keep before them and measure the team's progress. And if management or teams settle on goals that meet these criteria, management must be ready to reward those teams in ways that make that level of performance worthwhile to the individual team members. Money for sure, but also public recognition, more autonomy and empowerment for the team as well.
Copyright (C) 1998-2002, Donald J. Bodwell. All rights reserved.