This piece is about getting real about workplace change and comfort zones.

Picture this:

You’re dressed in the clothes you wore as a 14-year old: wrists exposed by sleeves too short, and too narrow to bend properly at the elbow. Shoulders squeezed, waist cinched. Would you find that uncomfortable?

You’re on a crowded bus, moving at speed along a road pitted by potholes. Only your grip of the suspended plastic strap keeps you from falling forward or back into the bodies surrounding you. You think this is the express bus to your destination, but the low buzz of conversation around you is raising doubts. There are no stops, so you wait and see. Uncomfortable?

You leave your paperback book jackknifed on an old beach towel on dry sand, and set off walking along the sea edge. The dunes are covered with sea grass that blocks the view of any landmarks inland. Lost in thought, you lose track of time. When you turn to retrace your steps, the tide has risen and your footprints have been wiped away. You walk back the distance you think you travelled on your outbound journey but there is no sign of your towel or of your book. Are you uncomfortable?

Other words may spring to mind, and they are valid: awkward, embarrassing, disconcerting, claustrophobic, discomfiting, eerie. The range of related sensations points to the layers we bundle into our sense of what’s uncomfortable:
* physical — related to our bodies
* social — with regard to our relation to others
* cognitive — our trust in our senses and ability to intelligently navigate the external world
Values don’t exist in isolation from our experience as embodied, social, sensing creatures. Just talking about values (even if ours do overlap) doesn’t get us to comfortable.

If we’re going to talk meaningfully about comfort zones in work, it’s worth thinking with depth and detail what exactly we might mean by uncomfortable. After all, the whole point of a “comfort zone” is to provide a boundary that keeps the uncomfortable outside.

Yesterday, I gathered with a group of people trained in Time To Think ® practices. Our thinking council left me thinking about what it means when we speak about people working out of their “comfort zone”. Here’s what I woke up with this morning:

  1. To each, his own comfort zone
  2. Drama and comedy teach us about comfort zones and being uncomfortable
  3. Understanding different comfort zones can change how “do” change programmes

To each, his own comfort zone

To enrich the conversation about workplace change, I invite you to move from the world of work and organizations to the world of theatre. I think through theatre we’ll see something useful we can apply to the challenge of workplace change.

My late father was both a professional actor and a teacher of acting. (For a time, I too was an actor.) He wanted actors to preserve their improvisational impulses even when working with dramatic scripts. So when he taught MFA students, he’d encourage them to get curious about a playwright’s worldview. Drama, remember, is about conflict.

Since all social processes — including change programmes inside workplaces — also involve conflict, I think it’s worth pursuing what Dad’s approach to acting might tell us about comfort zones.

The burden of the fiction writer — whether in prose or plays — is to create both a world and people within it. Dad maintained that if an actor was going to be remain free to create, he had to quickly establish a way of working not just within but also with the world the playwright has constructed.

Dad encouraged actors to read the writer’s work beyond the one play in rehearsal, and then to characterize the worldview in the phrase, “According to this writer, there are two kinds of people in the world: those who A, and the those who not-A.” A and Not-A would become the actor’s code names for the opposing forces depicted through the characters. Often we can see the other more clearly than we see ourselves. If the character I’m confronting is an A, what are the many ways in which I might not-A?

Ophelia by John Everett Millais (1852). You can see the painting at Tate Gallery’s Tate Britain.

Getting a handle on the opposition a playwright implicitly establish in a fictional world breathed life into rehearsal. If you climbed out of the box your playwright seemed to have put your character into (like allowing my Ophelia to be both flirtatious and envious of her big brother’s warrior status), your character gained depth. Likewise if you made the box bigger, the conflict with people representing the opposite norms became richer and more vivid. So once her mind started unravelling, my Ophelia was not hysterical but cataleptic, speaking from a body immobilised….the vertical version of floating corpse she’d soon become.

Dad and I used to mull which pair of oppositions would best describe the work of our favourite writers. From memory, here are some examples I’m sure we once debated:

Dad loved John Steinbeck, for whom it seems the world is divided into those who can be tender in the face of misery, and those who cannot.
For Eugene O’Neill, the world is divided into those who can live with and tolerate themselves, and those who cannot.
For Arthur Miller, the world is divided into those who place duty and honour above love, and those who do not.
For Tennessee Williams, the world is divided into those who live in hope, and those who live in shame.
For David Mamet, the world is divided into those holding power over others, and those who do not.

If we leave the world of literature, and return to work, what are the A’s and Not-A’s we see when it comes to comfort zones?

Satisficers versus Questers

For the sake of stirring up thought and debate, I’d like to suggest that when it comes to work, there are two kinds of people: satisficers and questers.


Satisficers live in a zone is governed by habitual thinking. They will go to great lengths to avoid straying from habitual thinking, even if to do so means evidence must be ignored.

Satisficers are not seeking out fuzzy situations, or aiming for optimal solutions. Criteria for a decision are kept low, and the first option that on face-value meets the threshold criteria is adopted.

They are happiest when doing, and are uninterested in ambiguity or inclined to question what something means. It’s hard to know if they hate novelty or just ignore whatever doesn’t make sense in the context of the familiar. They speak in the declarative. You’ll hear a satisficer say:

“Hurry up.”
“Good enough”
“Follow the instructions.”
“Never mind.”
“It doesn’t matter.”

Because complexities don’t register, satisficers can be admirably efficient. In predictable situations, they can also be effective. Give a satisficer step-by-step instructions, and s/he’s all set to go.


For others, habitual thinking imposes a routine that feels imprisoning. They love asking questions. They relish open-ended thinking even when they cannot yet see where it will lead. That’s why I call them “questers”.

Questers take nothing for granted, partly because they’re skilled at spotting the connections between things others assume are unrelated. They believe in positive change and progress.

Questers love gerunds. The “ing” keeps nouns active and gives fleeting verbs duration. It’s like having your cake and eating it too.

Questers improvise. Recipes might be fun to read but they’re not essential when it comes to cooking. Likewise templates. There’s nothing set in stone for the quester. Anything previously laid down may be a starting point but only as a springboard.

You’ll hear a quester say:

“Hold on a sec”
“How about…”
“Wait. I have a question….”
“Why not?”

The satisficer’s comfort zone looks very different to the quester’s. It may even be that the hell of one is the comfort zone of the other.

Finding the comedy

If drama thrives on vivid conflict — because conflict merits an audience’s attention — workplace change needs the opposite. Something that isn’t uncomfortable even if it does help satisficers move from one plateau to another. So first, I suggest we turn from drama to comedy.

The movie What About Bob is all about changing comfort zones. Early on, the psychiatrist played by Richard Dreyfus recommends to his patient played by Bill Murray that you don’t have to worry about everything in the future, just take baby steps.


It works so well for Bob that he’s convinced the two men must be inseparable. Baby steps becomes the key to Bob’s liberation and the unravelling of the psychiatrist’s rigid, pompous mask. The comedy flows from juxtaposition of Bob’s coming into his own and the doctor’s descent. Using Kurt Vonnegut’s graph for story shapes, the changes in their fortunes look roughly like this:

Based on Vonnegut’s wonderful lecture On the Shape of Stories

It’s like a see-saw: one is up when the other is down. That sounds a lot like change programmes. Initiatives typically pit questers against satisfiers, and make “good news” for one “bad news” for the other.

Vonnegut wants us to think about the shapes of stories so we can invent new shapes. Let’s take the bait, and ask: can we talk about and foster change in ways that don’t once again pit the questers against the satisfiers?

Doing Organisational Change Differently

Most any change programme begins with a recognition that business-as-usual isn’t working. It moves to form a vision of what would be better. I call this big-picture vision of a possible future “the new normal”. It’s the sort of conception that appeals most to questers. Satisficers by definition are doing ok in the normal they have right here and now.

When it comes to organisational change, the conflict between between satisficers and questers boils down to the gut reactions the two types have to “big picture thinking”. Questers think the “big picture” is highly motivating, even inspiring. Satisficers think the “big picture” is irrelevant, pompous, or just plain wrong.

“The New Normal” may explain the “why”, but satisficers aren’t usually the ones asking this particular question. For them, life unfolds in the where and when of what they’re already comfortable doing. Who are you to ask them to get curious about the why? How on earth will they find the time for that?

It’s the clash of worldviews that damns so many changing initiatives.

Change programmes are designed to treat satisficers like they are raw material that can be remolded.

If you want the change programme you design to work, I challenge you to reconceive it so you can tell it as a story that has your customer at its heart but also as as story with your satisficers as the heroes. Show satisificers what’s in it for them, not just for the customer or ultimate beneficiary.
(And don’t kid yourself that satisficers are only in the rank and file; people who opt for habitual patterns can be found up and down the corporate ladder.)

What About Bob has two main characters, why can’t your story too?

If this sounds interesting, I encourage you to explore storyFORMing. It a framework to help individuals and teams capture and test their “big picture” thinking.

a storyFORMing canvas so you can capture big-picture thinking while keeping it real

Back to Bob’s Baby Steps

Baby steps seems a good way to talk about change with satisficers.

What happens when we invite people to walk towards the “new normal” using baby steps?

Ahead of change — which is uncomfortable for satisficers — let’s prepare people, so they can arrive in a new normal that doesn’t seem alien.There are myriad ways to enter a swimming pool: who are we to specify which one is right for everyone? Why not let people dip their toe in and take their time? Must we all climb the high-dive or cannonball in from the side? Of course not!

Instead of foisting change, what would happen if we gave satisficers time to experiment?

Questers will get impatient with the easy-does-it approach, but at least, over time, there’s a chance the desired change envisioned in the “Big Picture” will actually take hold.


With thanks to Ruth McCarthy of Think It Through and Laura Williams of The Thinking Well for hosting the Time To Think council, and gratitude to my fellow thinkers.

For more on how to scaffold big picture thinking, please join me on storyFORMing.

In Toronto? Come join me at Planning-ness May 14–15, 2015 for a hands-on session working with storyFORMing new ideas and big visions.

Coming to CPSI (Creative Problem Solving Institute’s 61st annual conference) in Buffalo 17–21 June, 2015? I’ll be running a storyFORMing session for mavericks and leaders and would love you to sign up.

Curious about the in-depth story of storyFORMing? Come to the Business Strand on July 2 of the International Conference on Thinking (30 June-4 July in Bilbao, Spain) for my 60-minute multimedia talk.