Life is filled with habits and routines that are so embedded and ingrained you don’t even notice them, because you do them without thinking. You do them on autopilot. Have you ever read three pages of a book and suddenly realized that you have no idea what you just read? Your eyes were moving across the page and your hand was flipping the pages, but you were daydreaming. Your mind was somewhere else. That’s what I mean by autopilot.
Teams and organizations have autopilot routines too. Here’s an example:
Hunter Industries is a company that makes irrigation and sprinkler systems that are driven by software. The software developers at Hunter Industries worked in cubicles and when they wanted to have a meeting, they needed to book a meeting room. Meeting rooms at Hunter Industries were at a premium, so you were not allowed to book them for more than two hours. Sounds pretty basic, right? Not unreasonable.
A guy named Woody Zuill was brought into Hunter Industries to manage that software team. When he first arrived at Hunter, Woody noticed that his team was stressed out, and they were spending a lot of time in meetings. They were having meetings on top of meetings, and even with all those meetings, the software, which is pretty complex, was breaking a lot. So whenever something broke, they would need to have even more meetings to figure out what was going on.
Woody disrupted the routine, but in a very small way. He is a very collaborative guy and not a top-down manager, so he started making time for the team to reflect and think about their problems, asking them what they thought they should do, and doing his best to make it possible.
One of the things they did was to institute a kind of weekly learning time, where on Friday afternoons they would book a meeting room, with a laptop and a projector, and people would show each other the things that they knew. They would pass the laptop back and forth. It was a nice way to spend a Friday afternoon and the team members were learning a lot from each other.
One Friday the team got together to meet about a large, complex project they were working on, and they started to talk about the project and who needed to do what, but pretty soon they started passing the laptop back and forth like they did in their weekly learning meetings. After an hour and a half, their meeting time was up, someone else was coming in for another meeting, and they all looked at each other and said, “Well, we’re not done yet, so let’s book another meeting room.”
So they booked another room and kept on with their meeting. It was actually turning into a kind of working meeting, because they were not just talking to each other, they were actually making progress on the project at the same time. They continued like this for the rest of the day, going from meeting room to meeting room and moving the project forward together.
The next week, Woody blocked out meeting rooms all day, every day, and the team was literally going from room to room, meeting and working, and getting a lot done at the same time. After a week of this, they figured it was time to get a room where they could do this permanently.
It took them about three weeks to find a room where they could keep working like this, and now they do it this way pretty much all the time.
So what happened there?
There was a tacit, unspoken, underlying belief that permeated the entire company: the idea that “meeting is not working.” This belief was so habitual and embedded that it had been built into the routines and even the physical structure of work, in the form of cubicles, which were “for work,” and meeting rooms, which were “for meetings” and needed to be booked and scheduled.
By creating space for reflection, Woody disrupted that routine. At the same time, he created a safe space for learning and reflection, a kind of playful space, which opened up some wiggle-room for a new way of working to emerge; a way of working that combined meetings and work into a single activity.
In one sense, they are meeting all the time. They are always in a meeting. But in another sense they have done away with meetings altogether, because they are always working too.
The results have been so dramatic that Woody is now in demand all over the world, where he teaches people this new way of working, which he has dubbed “mob programming.”
Life is full of these kinds of patterns and routines. Over time they become invisible.
Think about your route to work. If you’re like me, you take that trip on autopilot. You take the same route every day, so you see the same things, and over time it gets to the point where you don’t even notice them. But if there is construction or something and that road is blocked, you are forced to find a new way, and you are inevitably going to pay attention in new ways and notice new things.
You can do this intentionally in other parts of your life as well. Whenever you find yourself stuck in any kind of recurring pattern, try something random. Anything you can do that throws that train off the rails will create new openings and might help you see the whole situation in a new way. Just do something different.
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Liminal Thinking practice:
Disrupt routines. Many beliefs are embedded in habitual routines that run on autopilot. If a routine is a problem, disrupt the routine to create new possibilities.
Think of a relationship in your life — at home or at work — where you have a recurring pattern that you’d like to change. Find a way to disrupt that routine, even if it’s random. See what happens.
Learn more about liminal thinking, and let us know how disrupting your routine has created new opportunities for you in the comments!