There’s a natural desire to create comfort because, well, it’s comfortable. The parents of comfort are sameness and familiarity. To be comfortable we naturally seek out familiarity, and since we’re most familiar with what we did last time, we naturally want to repeat the past. Because we’re familiar with it and because the familiarity makes us comfortable, there’s natural gravitational pull toward the past. Same goes for sameness – it’s comfortable so we seek it out. That’s why there’s so much momentum around what we did last time – familiarity and sameness create comfort and comfort feels comfortable.
And there’s a second level of intellectual inertia created by our desire for comfort. Yes, the parents are the same – sameness and familiarity – but this level of comfort is about comfort with what we have. Whatever success we’ve had, we want to hold onto it so we can feel comfortable. It’s the success we know, it’s what we’re familiar with, and we want sameness around success.
Level one is about comfort around our behavior and level two is about comfort around outcomes of our behavior. We do what we did last time because we know how to do it and we extrapolate – because we did it well last time we’ll do it well this time. We do what we did last time because it worked and we extrapolate – because it worked last time it will work well again. And when the past is repeated, we’ll be comfortable.
This is a fine way to go if things are static – when the rules of the past are the same in the future. But the wheels fall off when things are dynamic – extrapolation doesn’t work when the rules change,and surely we live in dynamic times. If there’s one thing we should be uncomfortable with it’s seeking comfort in familiarity and sameness.
Just as comfort fosters sameness, discomfort drives disruption.
No doubt the future’s rules will be different, and discomfort will be the forcing function. Discomfort with the status quo will propel upstarts to innovate and break rules. For them familiarity and sameness are uncomfortable, and since they too are human, they will seek out comfort. But they will find it in unfamiliarity and difference. They will be comfortable when they disrupt the game, dethrone the leaders, and coronate themselves.
Whether you’re the leader or the start-up, increase your level of discomfort. The leader can create pockets of discomfort (financed by comfort-based success) to break the rules on their own terms and obsolete their best stuff on their own timeline. And the already uncomfortable start-up can add more to harden itself for the tough times ahead.
Maximizing comfort does not maximize business success. There is little learning without discomfort and there is no adaptation without it. If you’re feeling comfortable, that’s the telltale sign you shouldn’t.
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Mike Shipulski brings together people, culture, and tools to change engineering behavior. He writes daily on Twitter as @MikeShipulski and weekly on his blog Shipulski On Design.