Learning Zone vs. Comfort Zone [Guest Post]

by ShawnP on February 14, 2011 · 3 comments

Guest Post: Shawn Patterson is the Senior Director of Corporate Services at DTE Energy where he is responsible for the Supply Chain, Fleet, Facilities, and Continuous Improvement organizations. Shawn has held numerous positions in multiple industries and is passionate about influencing lean transformations in organizations.

In light of recent financial pressures, I’ve heard a lot of co-workers ask the question, “when does this end and when will things return to normal?” Behind the question is a deep discomfort with the relentless challenges to do more with less. It seems the target being sought is an environment that is more stable and predictable.

I’m not sure that’s possible as companies shift up from good to excellence.  The reason for this rests in the fact that excellence requires people to almost constantly be in the “learning zone”. On the other hand, to exist in the “comfort zone” requires us to accept what we now know how to do, which generally leads to the same results.

The learning zone is broadly defined as where our current skills are no longer sufficient to carry out new tasks and challenges. Managed well, it is a safe area (professionally and emotionally) that stretches us to acquire new skills, new insights, or new patterns of thinking. Fundamentally, it is the way that anyone learns and grows.

Think about the first time driving a car. In the beginning it was unfamiliar, challenging, and perhaps stressful. But taught through a safe set of practices, a whole new life long skill set was acquired. Almost anything we learn must take us out of our normal routines and challenge our existing skills.

In the comfort zone, we can draw on what we already know. However, we really aren’t on the learning edge either. To be fair, a good part of any day should probably have a fair amount routines that rely on our comfort zone. However, we do need to be pushed, and as leaders we do need to push our teams to the learning zone.

When I hear the question, “when will this end?”, I try to look at through the lens of the Leaning Zone/Comfort Zone. Are we just seeking to collapse back in to what we already know? Or are we just in the stressful period of the Learning Zone that will lead to higher performance? I think this re-frame for those feeling discomfort is vital. It’s a constant state in the push for excellence.

1 Matt Wrye February 14, 2011 at 2:45 pm

Shawn –

I liked the way you framed it. That opened my eyes because I would tell people this is the new world we live in. It is what it is and going back probably isn’t going to happen. I completely see what you mean about comfort zone. People look at today’s economy and want it to go back to the way it was because everyone was comfortable there. If we can get people to see this as the learning zone and get better and apply new skills, then before we know it today’s world will become the comfort zone.

2 Shawn Patterson February 14, 2011 at 9:15 pm

Thanks for the feedback, Matt. When I was introduced to this framework, it was a real epiphany for me. It’s been a useful pick me up personally. I try to shift my perspective from “this is stressful” to “this is a learning opportunity.” It seems a lot of organizational cultures seek stability whereas the best companies covet adaptablity, which is the outpost of the learning zone.

All the best!

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