If you could travel in time and step into a waiting room of a doctor's office in the 1950s, you'd be surprised by something ubiquitous back then: a dense cloud of cigarette smoke. Smoking was not only acceptable; it was fashionable. You'd be hard-pressed to find a movie star who wasn’t sporting a cigarette. Doctors not only approved, they often actively promoted cigarette brands. Today, given scientific findings on the harmful effects of smoking, we find its widespread acceptance in the 1950s shocking.
But before you scoff at the naivety or ignorance of people back then, consider this - how many habits and practices that you and your team routinely engage in could be deemed unhelpful -- or even grossly misguided -- after subjecting them to careful scrutiny?
I've recently asked a CEO about the objective of his long status update meetings. He looked at me with a puzzled expression:
"Well, we update one another on the status of the most important projects."
"Why?" - I asked.
"So that we know where we stand."
"Could there be a better way to share these updates?"
"I guess..." - he offered after a pause. "We could post them on Slack every Friday."
And so they did. This simple change saved the company three hours of senior leaders' time every week. That's around 150 hours annually - close to 20 extra days that could now be utilized on projects and activities that were of strategic importance.
Human beings are creatures of habit. We enjoy the comfort of an established routine and the reassuring rhythm that it brings into our work life. But habits need to be examined; they need to be questioned and often - changed. What served us in the past might be no longer useful in the new context; what we believed to be the best way turns out to be the only way we've ever tried.
If there is one habit worth cultivating (and sticking to), it is to challenge "the way we do things around here" regularly. One of the Culture Lab protocols that can help is to identify your "cloud of smoke" periodically. To do it, you need to explore a hypothetical scenario with your team. You can use this question:
"If an outsider could be a fly on the wall (when we do X), what would they find super weird, shocking, inefficient, or simply dumb?"
After you have identified the suspicious pattern or practice, keep pressing on:
- "Why do we do it this way?"
- "What's the objective?" - and finally:
- "Is there a better way to achieve it?"