I was rock climbing near my home a few of months ago with two experienced climbing buddies, and I wasn't too shocked to learn both had hurt themselves (a broken ankle, a broken back) while climbing. But I was surprised to learn the reason: miscommunication between the climber and the person holding the belay device that controls the safety rope. "On belay" means that the belayer is operating the belay device, ready to "catch" the climber in the event of a fall. "On belay" essentially means "I've got you, it is safe to proceed." "Off belay" means the opposite: "I am not manning the belay device, so exercise extreme caution." Both my friends were injured when they believed the belayer was "on belay" when he wasn't.
Can you think of two phrases that sound more alike than "on belay" and "off belay?" While they might be distinguished easily in an indoor climbing gym, put two competitive, adrenaline-filled people on a sheer cliff with the wind whistling by, a waterfall in the distance, gear clacking against the rock—and it's not difficult to see how such errors occur. Why on earth, I wondered aloud to my friends, would climbers continue to use the terms when they are obviously not the best signals for the task? "I guess climbers have always done it that way," was their uneasy answer. The terms are remnants of a stupid routine.
Similarly, ill-suited routines tend to accumulate in businesses, like barnacles on the hull of a ship. And the problems can be compounded when the environment in which the business operates is in the midst of rapid change, internally or externally. Take the example of the business I know that considers itself a national company. It's being forced into the global market. But management long felt it was "on belay" as long as it took care of its domestic customers and vendors. It now sees its market share plummeting as the rules of the game change. Or consider the company that was one of the first in its industry segment to move production to China. It looks at Chinese production as the solution to all its problems. The real problem is, its key European customers are emphasizing their desire for ecological sensitivity—and indicate they plan to stop purchasing Chinese-made products because of that country's heavy use of coal for energy.
Smart leaders know one of their main jobs is to help their business, where appropriate, break out of routines. When people get into a routine, their brains often shift into neutral: They become less likely to spot changes in the environment and less likely to question what they are doing and how they are doing it. Embedded in routines are assumptions about the world and how it works, assumptions we often mistake for reality. And when the world changes faster than our assumptions about it, danger lies ahead.
One way to eliminate dangerous routines in a business is to start talking about strategy regularly, meaning more than just once a year. My firm encourages companies to tap key people at all levels to adapt strategy and to get together for a formal discussion of strategy at least once a quarter. It doesn't take more than a few hours in a well-designed process to root out routines that no longer make sense. One way to do it is to ask the group the following questions:
In the past 90 days, what were our three most important strategic accomplishments? Push the group to not settle for answers like "we met our revenue budget." Instead, teach them that a strategic accomplishment is one which changes the field of play in a company's favor.
In the past 90 days, what were the three most important ways we fell short of our potential? Here, you are tapping people's intuition about important things the company ought to be emphasizing, but isn't.
In the past 90 days, what are the three most important things we have learned about our strategy? This is the toughest one—asking people to learn and apply what they've learned to actually adapt the strategy and tactics of the company.
The next time I go rock climbing, I'm going to suggest to my climbing partners that we drop the crazy tradition of using "on-belay," and "off-belay." We'll replace them with two words that don't sound so much alike: maybe "safe" and "die." Look around your company for similar bad routines and, where appropriate, change them. It could make the difference between a successful climb and a bad fall.