Tag Archives: The Power of Habit

John Kotter on organizational design

A review of John Kotter’s new book Accelerate: Building Strategic Agility for a Faster-Moving World in HBS Working Knowledge offers both a summary of the book’s key principles and an excerpt from the book itself. The concept builds on Kotter’s earlier work that focused on adding speed and agility to large businesses, and advocates for creating an organization that has “two operating systems” – one for everyday business and a smaller, agile system that “sits alongside to focus on the opportunities and demands of the future.”

Under a dual operating system, all processes and activities that involve what a company already knows how to do stay on the regular, hierarchical side of the company. High-stakes initiatives that involve change, speed, innovation or agility, go to the new agile network.

Reviewer Kim Girard continues, emphasizing that Kotter is not looking to abandon the traditional hierarchical model, but enhance it:

A dual operating system is a nod to what Kotter believes is some of the most interesting management thinking of the past few decades, from Michael Porter’s “wakeup call telling us that organizations need to pay attention to strategy much more explicitly and frequently,” to Clayton Christensen’s insights about how poorly companies handle the technological discontinuities inherent in a faster moving world. Kotter also credits recent work by Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman, who describes the brain as two coordinated systems, one more emotional, the other more rational.

 

In a typical organization—from the federal government to a pharmaceutical giant—a hierarchical operational structure meets daily demands through clear reporting relationships and responsibilities, Kotter writes. This structure minimizes risk, keeping people in boxes and silos, sorting work into departments, product divisions, and regions. Trouble is, managers in hierarchical organizations don’t promote or reward risk and innovation—they rely on routine, and turn to the same trusted people to run key initiatives.

Girard goes on to discuss Kotter’s 5 key principles for the dual operating systems, which ensure that the system works as envisioned (an “enhanced heirarcy” that focuses on leadership and innovation) and 8 accelerators that help managment tackle big opportunities for change. The accelerators are strikingly familiar, as many seem to have been adapted from Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit. Overall, an interesting approach to organizational design.

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The Power of Habit – afterword and appendix

I found the afterword and appendix to actually contain some of the most powerful, straightforward stuff in Duhigg’s book (though you may need to read the entire thing for this to be the case).

The afterword includes follow-up stories with some readers who had written in with thier experience using Duhigg’s guidance to lose weight, quit smoking, stop procrastination and improve teaching. One of the things that struck me the most in this chapter was the discussion of setbacks, and the importance of developing a plan for dealing with them. Duhigg says that “if you plan for failure, and then plan for recovery – you’re more likely to snap back faster.”

The Appendix provides a practical guide to using all the ideas in the book. Duhigg is careful to warn that even with a common habit, such as overeating, the cues, cravings, rewards, etc may be different for each person – which is why he created the book as a framework rather than a prescription. His framework is:

1) Identify the routine – the habit loop of cue, routine and reward seems simple enough, but figuring out the cue can be more difficult than you might expect. The routine itself, however, should be simple to identify.

2) Experiment with rewards – the reason for experimenting with rewards is actually to help to figure out what craving the routine is satisfying. As you test each reward, look for patterns by jotting down the first three things that come to mind once you have completed your routine with the new reward. Then, set an alarm for 15 minutes and when it goes off ask whether you still have the craving for the routine. The rationale behind these steps is described in the book, and reviewing the notes on how you felt immediately after the replacement rewards as well as 15 minutes later will help identify exactly what craving this routine has been satisfying.

3) Isolate the cue – Duhigg shares scientific evidence that almost all habitual cues fall into one of five categories: location, time, emotional state, other people or immediately preceding action. So when he felt a craving for the routine he wanted to change, he wrote down answers to the questions: Where are you? What time is it? What’s your emotional state? Who else is around? What action preceded the urge?

4) Have a plan – Once the cue is identified and you already know the routine you want to change and a suitable replacement reward, all the elements are in place to create a better routine. The plan is crucial for dealing with setbacks, and gettting back on track.

 

Are we responsible for our habits?

The final chapter of Duhigg’s The Power of Habit discusses neurology and personal responsibility. Once again, he uses two powerful examples to make his point.

One example is of a man who killed his wife while experiencing sleep terrors (a slightly less conscious version of sleepwalking). Scientific and circumstantial evidence showed that this man had no intent to kill his wife, and that he was simply following a deeply ingrained habit – fight or flight – and was left with a deep sense of guilt. Not only was he found not guilty, the judge attempted to console him.

The next example was of a woman who developed a habit of compulsive gambling, declared bankruptcy and moved to another state to avoid casinos, but was drawn back in by predatory marketing and grief over the loss of her parents – which ended up in the loss of her $1 million inheritance.

A study of the neurology of problem gamblers showed that their brains showed the same reward reaction to near wins as they did to wins, whereas other gamblers correctly interpreted near wins as losses. This showed up in the brain stem and basal ganglia, the same areas as sleep terrors. Further, people who have taken medication that affects these areas have been found not to be responsible for sudden binges of gambling, eating, shopping, etc. So should all problem gamblers who exhibit this deterioration be excused for their actions?

Duhigg says no:

We can choose our habits, once we know how. Everything we know about habits, from neurologists studying amnesiacs and organizational experts remaking companies, is that any if them can be changed, if you understand how they function.

Further:

However, to modify a habit, you must decide to change it. You must consciously accept the hard work of identifying the cues and rewards that drive the habits’ routines, and find alternatives. You must know you have control and be self-conscious enough to use it…

When companies predict (and manipulate) habits

Chapter 7 in Duhigg’s book begins by talking about Target, and how they infamously used their analytics to identify pregnant women before they had told their families. The seemingly incongruous example paired this time is the Outkast song Hey Ya, which software had predicted would be a huge hit.

In both cases, the initial result was failure. The Outkast song was too different from what listeners were used to, and the Target targeting through coupons was too creepy.

Duhigg shares the secret recipe for creating habits from an old U.S. government study when they were trying to get Americans to eat more offal: people will try something new when it is surrounded by what is familiar.

So Hey Ya was played in between mega hits, and Target started putting the baby coupons next to unrelated common consumer items, and both succeeded.

The power of a crisis to instigate habit change

Chapter 6 of Duhigg’s book talks about the role crisis can play in instigating habit change. But first he explains the research of Nelson and Winter, who wrote about institutional habits as truces between warring factions within organizations. Duhigg says “There are no organizations without institutional habits. There are only places where they are deliberately designed, and places where they are created without forethought, so they often grow from rivalries or fear.”

Duhigg uses the examples of rampant medical errors and a major transit safety incident, which underscores his point: “Sometimes one priority – or one department or one person or one goal – needs to overshadow everything else, though it might be unpopular or threaten the balance of power that keeps trains running on time.”

Crisis brings this into sharp focus. Crisis brings a turmoil in which habits are more malleable and the sense that something must be done. It is easier to institute change and form new habits and routines in a crisis our its immediate aftermath.

While Duhigg emphasizes this for organizational leaders, it seems relevant to the individual as well. When we feel we are in crisis, out is easy to say “I can’t take on new changes during this time of chaos.” But maybe that’s actually the best time to make a change because we see the need and are open to it.

Making willpower a habit

The fifth chapter in Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit is about Starbucks, and features the success story of one of its employees. Starbucks has focused on developing the habit of willpower in its employees and in doing so has “…succeeded in teaching the kind of life skills that schools, families and communities have failed to provide,” says Duhigg, before he goes into the research, discussing the marshmallow study and several variants. 

Willpower has been shown to be a finite resource, says one of the scientists:

Willpower isn’t just a skill. It’s a muscle, like the muscles in your arms or legs, and it gets tired as it works harder, so there’s less power left over for other things

Studies showed that willpower exercised in one area often translated into other areas – whether subjects were asked to go to the gym, begin money management, or practice study habits, they got better at regulating their impulses and distracting themselves from their temptations. A study of orthopedic patients who were asked to write action plans for their physical activity recovered at a greater rate than those simply given instructions – researchers found that it was the plan for dealing with key inflection points of pain  that helped them through.

Starbucks used this to design a training system for employees. Employees were introduced to the situation where an inflection point – like an angry customer – could cause a breakdown, and a framework for how the company suggests dealing with the situation. The employee then filled in the answer, and role played so that their response became automatic. The angry customer “inflection point” becomes the cue in the habit loop, and the reward should be grateful customers, praise from the manager, etc.

The other thing Duhigg emphasizes in this is the sense of agency that Starbucks gives employees. When people feel like they are in control, when they feel like it is their choice to exercise willpower (rather than having someone brusquely demand that they exercise willpower), they don’t need to use as much willpower and their energy and attention for other tasks dramatically increase. 

Keystone Habits

Part 2 of Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit begins with a chapter that talks about keystone habits. These are habits that, once created or changed, have a cascading “snowball” effect on other aspects of a person’s life. Duhigg says:

Keystone habits say that success doesn’t depend on getting every single thing right, but instead relies on identifying a few key priorities and fashioning them into powerful levers…The habits that matter most are the ones that, when they start to shift, dislodge and remake other patterns.

This is the part of the book where Duhigg switches from a focus on individuals to a focus on organizations, so it seems appropriate that his examples include one of each – this chapter looks at Olypmpic swimmer Michael Phelps and aluminum manufacturer Alcoa. Duhigg initially focuses on Alcoa’s CEO, Paul O’Neill, who came in to run the company at a time when it was in decline and whose focus on workplace safety led it to outperform the competition even after he left. 

Duhigg begins the story of the Alcoa transformation with a lengthy background on O’Neill, demonstrating his knowledge of habits and how he honed this knowledge throughout his career. When O’Neill took CEO position at Alcoa, he recognized that if he were to succeed, he would need a focus that unions and executives could both agree was important – this was worker safety. O’Neill had determined that this was a keystone habit:

The key to protecting Alcoa employees, O’Neill believed, was understanding why injuries happened in the first place. And to understand why injuries happened, you had to understand how the manufacturing process was going wrong. To understand how things were going wrong, you had to bring in people who could educate workers about quality control and the most efficient work processes, so that it would be easier to do everything right, since correct work is also safer work.

In other words, to protect workers, Alcoa had to become the best, most streamlined aluminum company on earth.

Duhigg details some of the policies that O’Neill implemented, and shows how a focus on one thing – worker safety – had far-reaching implications for how the company operated. He then returns to Michael Phelps and talks about how exercise is often a keystone habit for people – how even exercising once a week can have a spillover effect in how people make choices about eating, sleeping, etc. Reading this section, I was reminded of the FlyLady, whose email list I was on for a while back when I could not manage to keep my house clean. One of her central tenets is to start with the kitchen sink, and ensure that at the end of each day, that is clean. Somehow, that really helped me, and now I see that it was part of a keystone habit around attacking cleanliness and organization.

Of course, Duhigg does not stop with keystone habits – there must be a secret sauce for each chapter, and in this one it is “small wins.” Duhigg introduces small wins with Phelps, then has a brief aside that mentions the wealth of research around the effectiveness of small wins and how they sparked a major movement for LGBT equality, and then returns to the Alcoa example to discuss how small wins helped the keystone habit of focusing on workplace safety become ingrained. Duhigg says “This is the final way that keystone habits encourage widespread change: by creating cutures where new values become ingrained.”