Deliberate Agitation and the Complacency TrapHow We Get Stuck in Our Ways Without Even Knowing It

If there’s one phrase that sends shivers down a startup’s spine, it’s, “that’s how we’ve always done things.”

Throughout the years, we’ve been taught that this kind of blind allegiance to specific business practices or processes is a death knell for companies. It’s the hallmark of stodgy, bureaucratic corporations that are in the throes of a long, painful death.

Most startups and new businesses pledge to never utter these words, lest it signal their own looming demise.

Guys like us disrupt guys like that.

And perhaps many of them won’t–at least for a while.

But in many cases, that’s because they’re simply too young to have established practices and processes. You can’t be set in your ways if you haven’t been around long enough to be set on anything.

When you work alone or have a small team, it’s easy to think that you’ll be nimble and able to change and adapt as you learn newer or better ways to do things. But as you grow, it becomes increasingly difficult. Your organization has drag. Change takes time and costs money.

So what happens when those companies grow up?

In most cases, they, too, will fall victim to the “how we’ve always done it” syndrome.

They’ll wake up one day and realize that they’ve been doing a lot of things the same way for the past month, year, or decade. They’ve trained each of their employees to do it the same way, who in turn have trained the next round of hires to do it just like them.

Or, even worse, they’ll become dogmatic about their own practices, even without considering alternatives.

Startups, in particular, seem to love setting hardline rules for the team. Things like, “We never have meetings–meetings are terrible,” or, “We run 2-week sprints because they’re optimal for performance.”

But has anyone in these organizations ever actually tested these out?

In most cases, no. It’s something they read on a blog or in a business book and took as gospel. Then they baked it into their business, forever and ever, amen.

That’s because doing what we know is easier than doing something different. And in most organizations, change doesn’t happen unless it’s done intentionally.

Complacency is a trap

This is the same trap of complacency that faces corporate teams. Yes, the exact same thing that most startups swear to never fall victim to will often come to dominate the culture of most companies no matter how innovative or entrepreneurial they may consider themselves.

We stick to what we know–what’s comfortable and what works–right up until the point where it fails us in some spectacular fashion. And almost every business is susceptible to this over time.

Because of this, a lot of organizations don’t change until they’re forced to.

The only way to combat this is to plan for change. Plan to change.

There needs to be someone keeping score–tweaking. optimizing, and experimenting. Just as many startups have embraced “failing fast” and “constant optimization” in their marketing or development process, so, too, should we embrace the same mindset about how our company actually runs.

Deliberate agitation

If you want to avoid building a company that gets stuck in its ways, then you need to be intentional about your commitment to evaluating and improving your systems. You need a process by which to improve your processes (meta, I know).

Every so often–monthly, quarterly, yearly (this process is subject to change and improvement just like the others)–set some time aside to take apart a portion of your business. Take a hard look at what you’re doing and ask why you do it that way. It might be your sales efforts, your marketing strategy, your development cycle, or any other system.

Have a transparent discussion with your team about how things work and where they fall apart.

Ask questions like:

  • How long have we done it this way?
  • Why did we start doing it this way?
  • Why do we keep doing it this way?
  • What are the benefits of our current approach?
  • What limitations or drawbacks do we face with this approach?
  • Are people happy with how we’re doing it?
  • What are the opportunities for improvement?
  • Is there a different approach we could take?
  • How would changing this change other things?

I think of this as deliberate agitation–like a snowglobe.

You let things settle into place just long enough and then shake them up. Watch to see if they fall into the same patterns or if something new and better emerges. Sometimes, you decide that the way you’ve been doing things is great and there’s no need for change. But it’s the act of looking that uncovers opportunity.

You deliberately and intentionally question things and change them before they become a problem. You remain vigilant in trying to improve so that way you don’t fall into the trap of complacency that leads to eventual failure.

Of course, too much change can make an organization unstable. You don’t want to switch up your internal folder structure every 2 days or radically redesign your product lifecycle every week. But, revisiting these systems and processes with some regularity can force you out of complacency.

It forces you to think critically about what you’re doing and why you do it.

Asking why

One of our founding brand values at Optimist is to always ask why.

It might seem trite or even cliche. Plenty of companies probably claim to search for knowledge or understanding in the things that they do.

But, for our part, this manifests itself in a process of deliberate agitation. It means that we constantly try new things, experiment, and question not only what we do but the way we do it.

This touches everything from how our team collaborates on client work to our project and task management systems and even our compensation structure and incentive programs.

For us, the point is to keep a healthy skepticism about the things we do and to be open to trying new ideas or methods that may help us in the long run.

Acting with intention

The greatest thing that comes from a process of continual evaluation is that you eliminate systems and processes that existed just for their own sake.

Actions take time (AKA money) and should serve a purpose.

Without purpose, we’re doing stuff just to do it, with no sense of whether it’s really what we should be doing. So, it’s important to adopt a mindset that’s built to evaluate and change our actions based on data and feedback.

When the things you do all have a clear purpose and clear validation, then they’re being done because they should be done, not just because they’ve been done in the past.

This is acting with intention.

It leads to better companies, better teams, better processes, and better people.

Tell me I’m wrong

I would be hypocritical to proclaim my own thoughts on this topic to be the end of the discussion.

This is, of course, my viewpoint. And I’ve tried to express it well.

But, I also want to hear from you. Share your thoughts, experiences, and ideas about how you build systems and processes to help your team do their best work.

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Tyler Hakes

Tyler is the strategy director and principal at Optimist. He's been helping helping startups, agencies, and corporate clients achieve growth through strategic content marketing and SEO for over ten years. These days it's hard to find him anywhere as he nomads around the globe, but when you do, he's probably iterating on research strategies to better serve Optimist clients.