I took some time away this week to join a friend on a photo shooting expedition through a decayed inner city neighborhood. I did not expect to see much there (I was wrong) and was probably more concerned that some vandal would key the door panels of my new car parked on the street (I was right).
I have a pretty sophisticated camera. I had it set on one of its ten automatic settings (really, it has that many). I clearly was struggling to get the exposure and composition right on some scenes, spending a lot of time and attention trying to select the right auto mode for various shots. After observing my travail for a bit, my friend (a professional photographer) suggested I switch to good-old manual mode — doing my own light metering and adjusting shutter speed, aperture and focus myself.
“Manual?” I said incredulously. “With all these automated options, I can’t believe I have to step back to manual mode!”
But I did. It took me a few shots to rummage up my memories of how to do that, but within a few minutes I was having a blast, tuning the shots the way I wanted to and finding enormous creative options that simply could not be done as easily or flexibly on any of the auto modes. I also ended up with better pictures because I got what I wanted, rather than what the camera was programmed to produce.
I realize I had become an unwitting prisoner of automation, but more importantly, I had let a process designed by someone else insidiously influence my personal style and control over what I wanted to create. I had stopped thinking.
We can do the same thing in leadership. Yes, without routines and process we have chaos. Still, it is easy to fall into a mental lull where we assume we have an efficient way of dealing with an issue or managing our business activity. Routines can erode our ability to think independently, but more dangerous, they can numb our ability to sense — to get creatively involved, see things differently, dig in and really experience (and thus create) more with our business.
There is something about getting out, getting into new (hmmm, uncomfortable?) environments, seeing things differently through our own eyes and trusting our own instincts that can make for a better business.
And better photos.