Get Comfortable being Uncomfortable

Get Comfortable being Uncomfortable

One of the things I realized during my time as a trainer is that people learn best when they are uncomfortable. What do I mean by this? Well, there are 3 zones, the comfort zone, the learning zone and the panic zone.

The comfort zone is where many of us operate. We’ve acquired various skills and expertise and we are comfortable living inside that area. We don’t progress or build we simply leverage what we already have. The learning zone is just outside of our comfort zone, but not so far away that we panic. I’ll give you an example: I learned more about being English in France in 5 years than I ever did in the UK. France has many similarities to the UK, enough that it was strange and uncomfortable at times, but not so much that I panicked. In addition this, people questioned me about things I had just accepted as the norm, and made me rethink my viewpoint. Of course too much pressure/difference leads to the panic zone. This is where you become so anxious that you cannot think; activities are so tough we don’t even know how to approach them. As a result, learning in a panic zone is just as impossible as learning in a comfort zone.

How do I deal with the three zones? First, I constantly force myself out of the comfort zone. Secondly, when I get projects that are in the panic zone, I take a step back and put myself in the learning zone. I research, read or talk to an expert and eventually this leads to taking on new skills, transitioning the project from the panic zone to the learning zone and after deliberate practice into the comfort zone.

By now, you may be wondering where I am going with this. What does it have to do with innovation? Well, if you always do the same things, if you stay inside your comfort zone, you are unlikely to get innovation. The more you push yourself, the more different influences you expose yourself to, the more creative and innovative you will be. Until that is, you reach what I call the innovation hot spot. At this point, the influences are so different from what you know, you will reach a panic zone similar to the learning panic zone. Instead of feeling inspired, you will feel threatened and will want to go back to where you feel comfortable.

Past the innovation hot spot, you are more likely to fail. Why? Obviously you are outside of your element, but put simply, you don’t know what you don’t know. Perhaps you don’t know the market or the players enough.  Or perhaps you don’t have enough technical expertise in the area to make correct assumptions/judgements. Instead, your ideas fall wide of the mark (if you manage to get any ideas at all), and you fail. It makes it really unlikely that you will be able to find a differentiated product and innovation. At this point most people fall back on what they know, go much closer to their comfort zone and develop a product that is incremental rather than breakthrough.

Rather than shooting for the moon, aim to innovate in that uncomfortable zone in the middle, where your potential product is different from what you are currently making, but not so different that you cannot draw parallels, work, learn and innovate. If you find yourself in the panic zone, do what I do: research and talk with experts. Bring the subject out of the panic zone and back into the innovation zone. Incidentally, this is one of the reasons why the market research part of New Opportunity Blueprinting is so important!

When mentoring the New Opportunity Blueprinting teams, or when working on an ideation session, it’s a balancing act. Does the team need more information, or do they need to be pushed out of their comfort zone and exposed to new techniques and ideas? Which all leads me to my final question: Are you comfortable being uncomfortable?

Alesandra Blakeston, Innovation Program Manager


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