Do you know how to change your organisation's habits?

We all have our habits, for better or worse, but how far do they control us? Why do we need to question our habits? Do habits exist in organisations? And how do habits impact on the business, particularly the culture?

When we assess culture, we look at three levels within the organisation, the ‘HAVING’, ’DOING’ and ‘BEING’ each one deeper than the previous. The first level, the ‘HAVING’ level – focuses on what do we have – what are our financial results, our operation successes, what is our culture, what is our competitive advantage, how do we impact society and the environment etc.

The second deeper level is the ‘DOING’ level – How do these results come about? What are our systems and structures to create this reality? How do people behave inside and outside the organisation to create this reality? What is the interface between people and systems – does this work well?

The deepest level is the ‘BEING’ level. The ‘BEING’ level holds aspects of the organisation which can be invisible – hidden thoughts and mind-sets, hidden behaviours, assumptions, traditions, beliefs–all elements which create “the way we do things around here”. For example, one belief may be ‘don’t challenge’ even if you know that for safety or financial reasons you should’ – a dilemma faced in many organisations today for whistle-blowers.

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Habits are one of the elements in the BEING level which drive results. We tend to think about habits on a personal level, but habits can grow into organisational routines, with positive and negative effects. I was introduced recently to the work of Charles Duhigg, an investigative reporter, who writes about habits thoroughly and eloquently in his book “The Power of Habit’.

He begins by looking at habits in individuals by introducing us to Eugene, whose viral encephalitis damaged the part of his brain which effected his memory. Larry Squire, a professor at the University of California, started to note that Eugene’s intelligence was sharp for a patient suffering memory loss. Eugene remembered the habits he had from his youth. When given something, Eugene would say ‘Thank You!’ If Eugene was asked how he made himself a cup of coffee, he couldn’t explain, but then he would walk to the kitchen and make himself a cup of coffee. Which part of the brain allowed Eugene to do things without remembering how to do them?

Early in 1990, scientists became interested in part of the brain called the basal ganglia, a primitive structure of the brain. The basal ganglia is a golf ball sized lump of tissue, where the brain meets the spinal column. Scientists found that the basal ganglia recalls patterns while the rest of the brain sleeps. By creating patterns of behaviour, this frees the mind from thinking about basic processes like walking, and frees us to start thinking in more complex ways.

But while we are thinking about complex issues, the basal ganglia helps us realise if we are in danger. The brain looks for a cue which is a hint of which habit to follow. The ‘habit loop’ consists of three steps i) a cue to trigger the brain to go into automatic mode, ii) a routine either mental or emotional and finally iii) a reward. Depending on the reward, the brain remembers if the loop is worth remembering for the future. Rewards can be physical rewards, such as food or drugs to emotional rewards such as feelings of pride. Over time the cue-routine-reward loop becomes increasingly automatic. As habit loops grow, we become blind to our ability to control them. They create neurological cravings. The brain starts to anticipate the effect of the reward when it sees the cue.

The Cue-Routine-Reward Cycle taken from Charles Duhigg “The Power of Hab

Understanding the psychology of the cue-routine-reward loop is used in advertising. The advert creates a craving, a cue that if the advert explains the reward clearly, can create new consumer habits and sell millions of products. For individuals, whether it is cigarettes, alcohol, gaming or emails, we can all be impacted by the cue-routine-reward loop.
So if habits exist in individuals can habits exit in organisations? The answer is yes – Duhigg says “some habits matter more than others in remaking businesses and lives. These are keystone habits and they influence how people work, eat, play, live, spend and communicate.”

Habits in an Organisation

Duhigg explains how Alcoa, the aluminium manufacturer as a great example of a company that addresses keystone habits. Alcoa’s net income rose five times and market capitalisation increased by $27 billion under the leadership of Paul O’Neill from 1987 to 2000. O’Neill began (unexpectedly) focusing on safety. He understood that ‘you can’t order people to change’ but by focusing on one issue, in this case improved safety, then the company habits would be disrupted and that could spread into other areas of the company. Rather than changing everything, he recognised that there were some key patterns of behaviour that could be changed in order to bring about radical change, and these are called keystone habits. Keystone habits rely on identifying ‘a few key priorities and fashioning them into powerful levers for change’. In his focus on improved safety, O’Neill brought in a policy where he needed to be informed personally within 24 hours of an injury. This meant that vice presidents needed to improve communication procedures with the floor managers, and the factory supervisors needed more ideas on how to avert and mitigate accidents in the future, leading to improved collection of ideas from the workforce. Through his new safety program, the company was building new corporate habits, impacting not just safety but these new routines led to cost coming down, quality improved and productivity increased.

Duhigg says, habits aren’t destiny – they can be ignored, changed or replaced but because habits are engrained, you need to fight habits and find new routines or the patterns unfold automatically. So what are the habits in your organisation and do new routines need to be established?

Written by:
Matt Burdock

Executive Coaching, Culture Measurement, Leadership Development.

January 8, 2019