Sometimes, Be Less Predictable

“I’m going to leave the room. When I come back, you will each need to be able to introduce five of your classmates to me.

"You have five minutes, starting now.”

This is frequently how I start a class at its first meeting of the semester. Sometimes, but not always, I stick my head back in the classroom after a minute or so if I don’t hear robust conversation and yell, “Get talking! You have three more minutes!”

The outcome is predictable. It’s a breath of energy and fun that kicks off the semester in a wonderful way. 

But the action itself is certainly not predictable. And that’s part of why it works.

Most of the time, most of us like clarity. We seek predictability in those around us; we engineer predictability into our daily routines. Such tendencies are helpful because they can help us be efficient and save our decision-making brain power for matters that truly need it. 

But being unpredictable has its place, its time and its value. In particular, being unpredictable or unconventional is helpful when you’re trying to encourage people to think a little bit differently. 

For example, consider the last meeting you attended at work. Was it similar in terms of venue, format or structure as previous ones? Was it effective? Were people truly engaged? Did they ignore their electronic devices? If not, sometimes a simple unconventional and unpredictable change can shake things up. Regarding meetings, a few ways to do this might include:

  • Hold the meeting in a different venue. Leave the conference room and head to one of your workplaces. Go to a space on the manufacturing floor if available (and safe). Go outside. Being in different physical environment can send a powerful signal. It tells people that this meeting is different and that it’s OK to think and behave differently too. 
  • With proper guidance, assign someone who isn’t normally in charge to lead the meeting. Give him or her the authority to plan the agenda and run the conversation. 
  • Assign people different roles. For example, have one person designated as the “devil’s advocate,” another person as the customer, another as a supplier or vendor and so on. Depending on the purpose of the meeting, such explicit assignment of a role can give people the freedom to think from a different point of view. 

If you’re a manager, you may also consider injecting some unpredictability and unconventional behavior into your routines with your people. One of my favorites is for managers to perform “random acts of kindness” for their teams. Simply doing something nice for your team unexpectedly can demonstrate that you care about their well-being and value what they do. And when people perceive that, great things can happen (think higher performance, stronger commitment, reduced stress, and more). 

If you’re not a manager, you can still be a leader. You have the power to initiate—even if it’s in small ways—positive cycles of behavior. And oftentimes, that comes through being a little bit unconventional, unpredictable. 

After all, we all want at least some variety in what we do and in our daily experiences. We are not meant to be robots. So perhaps we can inject some energy into our teams and organizations with just a little bit of unconventionality, a little bit of unpredictability. 

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About Ben Baran
Ben Baran, Ph.D., is probably one of the few people in the world who is equally comfortable in a university classroom, a corporate boardroom and in full body armor carrying a U.S. government-issued M4 assault rifle. More at www.benbaran.com and www.agilityconsulting.com.