Clinging to a comfort zone

Everyone has a comfort zone. Whether it is a favourite book/movie/restaurant that you return to again and again, that old pair of shoes you’ll never throw out because you’ve worn them in, or the route you take to work each day, we all like to follow familiar patterns, and avoid potentially unsettling, discomfortable, change.

So to in the work place we like to cling to what is familiar and known to us, the systems and procedures established many years ago and the communication channels we know well. Our comfort zone affect the types of careers and jobs we choose, and the approaches and techniques we use to execute them.

This pattern-based approach is employed for sound biological reasons. The human brain consumes 20-25% of our metabolic energy, enormously out of proportion with its size.

Following a routine requires less active thought and therefore less exertion. Thinking is hard work and, as organisms, the tendency is to minimise thinking in order to conserve energy. That’s why the more tired people get, the harder it is for them to think clearly or of new things, and why you can accidentally drive home instead of to a friend’s house, following your routine.

In other words, moving outside our comfort zone is hard work. We can no longer rely on the known and familiar, we must develop new strategies, identify new risks, consider new opportunities – deal with change and uncertainty, using more energy and creating stress on our systems.

Coping with change becomes even harder and energy-consuming when it is imposed on us outside our control, when events or other people force us outside our comfort zone against our will.

In many cases people resist the change, because habits and routine are easier. Even when the world has changed many people attempt to cling to the past, denying or shutting out the changes in order to continue to exist in a comfortable (and lower energy expenditure) state.

So what does this have to do with Government 2.0 – well everything really.

Government 2.0 represents a set of changes to how government employees engaged with citizens, and how citizens engage with government.

Over the last sixteen years I have seen all kinds of views and behaviour adopted by otherwise intelligent and good people to preserve their status quo – even in the face of overwhelming and highly public evidence to the contrary that the media and public engagement environment had changed, and they needed to change with it.

From denial (‘social media is just a fad’), to dismissal (‘social media isn’t going away but it is only for young people’), to active opposition (‘we can’t use social media because of these thirty year old rules’) – across government and companies alike.

Unfortunately some of this resistance to reality still exist, not because people are bad people, but because they are clinging to their comfort zones.

People such as community engagement professionals claiming that they would never use online consultation because ‘face-to-face is best’, even while acknowledging that their public events attract few citizens, most being retired.

People in IT teams who want to do everything in a specific software platform, rather than using user-centric, much better and sometimes thousands of times cheaper cloud-based solutions, because they are familiar with the software and prefer costing the organisation time and money to investing their own energy in thinking about new solutions.

People in Communications and Marketing teams who still raise reasons as to why they could never use online channels to engage citizens and customers, ‘we don’t know if our audience is online’, ‘we don’t know which tools to use because they keep changing’, ‘we don’t understand the risks’ and ‘we don’t understand the technology’. Isn’t it their job to learn what communications options available to their organisation so they can pick the most appropriate for their goals?

Ultimately, however, these individuals will be swept aside as the world keeps changing and the nature of work changes.

Today we see well-developed social media teams in organisations that didn’t have a social media channel five years ago. We see agencies reshaping their processes and services to suit online channels, the Victorian government gradually adopting a ‘mobile-first’ strategy, the UK government a ‘digital first’ approach.

In the US the President has just issued an executive order requiring all agencies to make all data open and machine-readable by default, while appropriately protecting privacy and confidentially. The order also requires all agencies to publish a list of all the data they could make open but that they, as yet, haven’t – an ‘open first’ strategy for data (watch video below featuring the US Government’s CTO and CIO.

The mandates from governments in the UK and US will force more agency staff from their comfort zones. The change programs they employ will help individuals make the changes with minimal energy expended on thinking (most has been done for them).

In Australia we’re a little further behind, largely grappling with guidance and policies rather than instructions and mandates. However it is my view that this will change, that governments in Australia will soon follow overseas leads to mandate openness for agencies, not just recommend it.

Is your agencypreparing for this change? Designing and placing the systems, support and training in place in your agency to facilitate it?

Or is your agency clinging to its comfort zone, with senior management secure in the knowledge that such a change could never happen, or if it happened, your agency could ride the storm with minimal impact, or even oppose it because your data is too sensitive/commercial/private/valuable/worthless for it to be mandated for release?

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