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The Energizer Blog

  • Writer's pictureEileen McDargh

Resiliency Routed by Routine

Resiliency Routed by Routine

A cornerstone of resiliency rests in the ability to be adaptable, to respond in multiple ways to any given circumstance. Alas, easy to say harder to do because of routine. Consider the fate of Howard Johnson’s restaurants.  At one point in time, the orange tile roof eatery could be found across all major highways and turnpikes throughout U.S. It made more money than McDonald’s, Burger King and KFC combined. In fact, it was second only to the U.S. Army as the largest purveyor of food.

Today, HoJo’s are but a distant memory of Baby Boomers. What happened?? Business as usual happened—routine.

Here’s the story: Howard Deering Johnson started the operation simply in 1925 with a drugstore soda fountain in Quincy, Mass. He increased the butterfat content of the ice cream and did a booming business. By 1929, he opened a second shop and then, in the midst of the Great Depression, Johnson pioneered the idea of restaurant franchising. With the advent of the auto, he saw opportunity to grab hungry travelers along the major roads. He added motels and the eat-sleep concept was born.  On trips from Georgia to my grandparents in York, PA, my family always spent the night at Howard Johnson’s in Danville, VA and ate fried clams in the restaurant and followed it with ice cream. Of course, their “rule” was that you could not have an ice cream cone unless you took it outside.

But then the world changed. Fast food became the order of the day. Road trips became passé. And others jumped on the eat-sleep wagon. As for HoJo’s, they kept doing things the same way, everyday, every time.  Routine felt safe and unfortunately, not sustainable.

Routine doesn't just happen in the running of our enterprises but also in our everyday life.  According to Dr. Neil Dempster writing in Incident Prevention, there is a psychological phenomenon referred to as “above-the-line” and “below the line” in decision making.

Above-the-line decisions are made through conscious thought processes.  However, much of our reactions and decisions come from below-the-line. These are unconscious responses that are the result of past conditioning that has become routine. When I suddenly brake my car and throw out my right arm to protect the passenger sitting beside me, I am not making a conscious decision. It is automatic. It has become routine. 

According to Dempster, more than 95 percent of all human behavior originates at the below-the-line level.

That’s not a bad thing. Our subconscious mind processes information thousands of times faster than the conscious mind and protects us in many ways.

But in the face of a challenge, a change, or a potential opportunity, resilient leaders would be wise to follow what I think of as “the railroad rule”:  Stop. Look. Listen.

Stop the routine and ask critical questions:

How is this situation different from others?Does this routine serve us in the best way?Why are we proceeding in this fashion?

Look for viewing points:

Who has been here before and what insight can they offer?Who has NEVER been here before and what might they see that we don’t see?


Practice naïve listening. Mouth shut and ears open.Silence the “yes but” critic in your head.Listen to your intuition--deeply listen. Your gut often knows more than your head does.

When the track seems clear in both directions, past and future--knowing you can only see as far as the bend in the “road”, move forward. What conscious effort will you now make?  Start small. Remember, the journey of 1000 miles begins with a single step. Let adaptability and not routine be your traveling companion.

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