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Do You Really Have to Do It That Way?

Last week, I found myself longing for more shelf space in my family room. As I looked around the room, however, every bit of space was consumed by something else. I resigned myself to the fact that this simply would never be possible.

Then, a couple of days later, I walked in and had a sudden flash. The cabinet taking up prime real estate was being used to store DVDs I hadn’t watched in years. Did it really need to be there? I could certainly find another place to store them. And just like that, I had the shelf space I was looking for!

How often does this happen to you? How many times have you run or attended an unproductive meeting simply because it’s on the schedule? How many times have you generated a report with the same meaningless data because that’s what the template asks for? We accept things at face value because that’s the way it’s always been done.

It’s no surprise that we fall into this trap. We’re so busy that we simply don’t make time to evaluate what’s working and not working in our current routines. Most of our mental bandwidth goes to addressing new problems, not taking a second look at systems or approaches that, on the surface, appear to be working.

But what if they’re not working? Or what if there’s a better way to achieve your goals? The next time you find yourself going through the motions, frustrated by the fact that the work feels meaningless, boring, or otherwise unproductive, take the following steps:

View it through a stranger’s eyes

We’ve all found ourselves in situations where we’ve been too close to the situation to recognize what needs to change. We simply can’t see beyond our own blinders. Then someone with no emotional attachment offers a suggestion that leaves us kicking ourselves for not recognizing it sooner.

Try to step outside of yourself and view the situation through an objective lens. Consider the following:

  1. What are the goals of the effort?

  2. Are the goals best achieved through the current approach?

  3. Is there a better/cheaper/faster way to achieve the desired results?

It can be challenging to distance yourself from the situation, particularly if you invested a great deal of time and emotional energy in designing the current process. But give it a try.

Get an outside perspective

Even if you can find it possible to be objective, you still don’t know what you don’t know. Talk to others who are not associated with the work to get new perspectives. Try the following approach:

  1. Share the goal(s) you are trying to achieve.

  2. Do not share the details of the current process. Allow the other person to share some ideas without bias.

  3. Once you’ve heard his/her thoughts, talk about the current process and how you might incorporate some new ideas.

When seeking external feedback, it’s helpful to get a sampling of perspectives from people in different positions. Those who best know your work, goals, and environment will likely be able to offer the most relevant input. But those with no familiarity with your work might present creative solutions you’d never consider.

Try something new

Depending on your work culture, it might be very difficult to make changes, particularly to systems that have been widely adopted, never questioned, and, worst of all, developed by influential leaders who don’t respond well to feedback. You’ll need to use your best judgment regarding how much change you can personally make.

But start small. Is there one small change you can make to improve the productivity of a recurring meeting? Is there a tweak you can make to the same presentation you’ve updated umpteen times?

For some, thinking about the same old approaches in new ways comes naturally. But for most of us it takes practice. Don’t be surprised or turned off if you find it difficult. It’s a valuable habit that is worth developing. Not only does it allow you to find more innovative and creative ways of doing things, but it also offers an important sense of satisfaction and ownership, particularly in a role that feels tedious and insufficiently challenging.

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