How do habits change ? There is, unfortunately, no specific set of steps guaranteed to work for every person. We know that a habit cannot be eradicated – it must, instead, be replaced. And we know that habits are most malleable when the Golden Rule of habit change is applied: if we keep the same cue and the same reward, a new routine can be inserted.
But that’s not enough.
For a habit to stay changed, people must believe change is possible. And most often, that belief only emerges with the help of a group(even as large as two people).
📌 Keystone habits – which habits matter most
Individuals have habits; groups have routines. Routines are the organizational analogue of habits.
Is it possible that in some organizations, they are basically ceding decision making to a process that occurred without actually thinking ?
At the core of keystone habits, is somethings known within academic literature as a “small win”.
Small wins are exactly what they sound like, and are part of how keystone habits create widespread changes.
Once a small win has been accomplished, forces are set in motion that favor another small win. Small wins fuel transformative changes by leveraging tiny advantages into patterns that convince people that bigger achievements are within reach.
Keystone habits encourage change by creating structures that help other habits to flourish.
If you would ask a champion before the race what’s going on in his head before competition, he would say he’s not really thinking about anything. He’s just following the program. It’s more like his habits have taken over. When the race arrives, he’s more than halfway through his plan and he’s been victorious at every step. All the screeches went like he planned. The warm-up laps were just like he visualized. His headphones are playing exactly what he expected. The actual race is just another step in a pattern that started earlier that day and has been nothing but victories. Winning is a natural extension.
Keystone habits encourage widespread change by creating cultures where new values become ingrained. Keystone habits make tough choices – such as firing a top executive – easier, because when that person violates the culture, it’s clear they have to go. Sometimes these cultures manifest themselves in special vocabularies, the use of which becomes, itself, a habit that defines an organization.
Cultures grow out of the keystone habits in every organization, whether leaders are aware of them or not.
Here’s a pragmatic example of how a keystone habit can change the culture and behaviors of an organization:
“When I was made a plant manager the first day I pulled into the parking lot I saw all these parking spaces near the front doors with people’s titles on them. People who were important got the best parking spots. The first thing I did was tell a maintenance manager to paint over all the titles. I wanted whoever got to work earliest to get the best spot. Everyone understood the message: Every person matters. It electrified the plant. Pretty soon, everyone was getting to work earlier each day.” Jeff Shockey – Alcoa executive
📌 The habit of success – when willpower becomes atomic
At the core of that education is an intense focus on an all-important habit: willpower. Dozens of studies show that willpower is the single most important keystone habit for individual success. Researchers analyzed eighth-grade students, measuring their IQs and other factors, including how much willpower the students demonstrated, as measured by tests of their self-discipline.
Students who exerted high levels of willpower were more likely to earn higher grades in their classes and gain admission into more selective schools. They had fewer absences and spent less time watching television and more hours on homework. High self-disciplined adolescents outperformed their more impulsive peers on every academic-performance variable. Self-discipline predicted academic performance more robustly than did IQ. Self-discipline also predicted which students would improve their grades over the course of the school year, whereas IQ did not. Self-discipline has a bigger effect on academic performance than does intellectual talent.
The best way to strengthen willpower and give students a leg up, studies indicate, is to make it into a habit. Sometimes it looks like people with great self-control aren’t working hard – but that’s because they’ve made it automatic. Their willpower occurs without them having to think about it.
By making people use a little bit of their willpower to achieve something, we put them into a state where they are willing to quit much faster.
Willpower isn’t a skill. A skill, after all, is something that remains constant from day to day. If you have the skill to make an omelet on Wednesday, you’ll still know how to make it on Friday.
Willpower is 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.
This is why good physicians make dumb mistakes (which most often occur after a doctor has finished a long, complicated task that requires intense focus). If you want to do something that requires willpower – like going for a run after work – you have to conserve your willpower muscle during the day.
Strengthening willpower is why signing kids up for piano lessons or sports is so important. It has nothing to do with creating a good musician or a five-year-old soccer star. When you learn to force yourself to practice for an hour or run fifteen laps, you start building self-regulatory strength. A five-year-old who can fallow the ball for ten minutes becomes a sixth grader who can start his homework on time.
Let’s focus on an example:
How Starbucks build a program for boosting workers’ willpower by creating institutional habits that made it easier to muster self-discipline.
Employees with willpower lapses, it turned out, had no difficulty doing their jobs most of the time. On the average day, a willpower-challenged worker was no different from anyone else. But sometimes, particularly when faces with unexpected stresses or uncertainties, those employees would snap and their self-control would evaporate.
What employees really needed were clear instructions about how to deal with inflection points – a routine to follow when their willpower muscles went limp.
The company developed training materials that spelled out routines for employees to use when they hit rough patches. The manuals taught workers how to respond to specific cues, such as screaming customer or a long line at a cash register. Managers drilled employees, role-playing with them until the responses became automatic. The company identified specific rewards – a grateful customer, praise from a manager – that employees could look to as evidence of a job well done.
Starbucks taught their employees how to handle moments of adversity by giving them willpower habit loops.
Inside the Starbucks manual, employees could find entire pages that were largely blank but at the top it read something like “When a customer is unhappy, my plan is to …” – this workbook is for them to image unpleasant situations, and write out a plan for responding.
☕ One of the systems is called LATTE:
- We Listen to the customer,
- Acknowledge their complaint,
- Take action by solving the problem,
- Thank them, and then
- Explain why the problem occurred.
Through the training manuals are dozens of blank pages where employees can write out plans that anticipate how they will surmount inflection points. Then they practice those plans, again and again, until they become automatic.
This is how willpower becomes a habit: by choosing a certain behavior ahead of time, and then following that routine when an inflection point arrives.
When people are asked to do something that takes self-control, if they think they are doing it for personal reasons – if they feel like it’s a choice something they enjoy because it helps someone else – it’s much less taxing. If they feel like they have no autonomy, if they’re just following orders, their willpower muscles get tired much faster.
📌 The power of a crisis – how leaders create habits through accident and design
Carefully designed keystone habits can create larger and larger successes.
Routines that aren’t carefully thought out and appear by accident can lead to toxic patterns.
Toxic/destructive patterns can happen within any organization where habits aren’t deliberately planned. Just as choosing the right keystone habits can create amazing change, the wrong ones can create disasters.
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.
Most economists are accustomed to treating companies as idyllic places where everyone is devoted to a common goal: making as much money as possible. But in the real world, that’s not how things work at all.
Companies aren’t big happy families where everyone plays together nicely.
Rather, most workplaces are made up of fiefdoms where executives compete for power and credit, often in hidden skirmishes that make their own performances appear superior and their rivals’ seem worse. Divisions compete for resources and sabotage each other to steal glory. Bosses pit their subordinates against one another so that no one can mount a coup.
Companies aren’t families. They’re battlefields in a civil war.
Yet despite this capacity for internecine warfare, most companies roll along relatively peacefully, year after year, because they have routines – habits – that create truces that allow everyone to set aside their rivalries long enough to get a day’s work done.
Organizational habits offer a basic promise: if you follow the established patterns and abide by the truce, then rivalries won’t destroy the company, the profits will roll in, and, eventually, everyone will get rich.
A salesperson, for example, knows she can boost her bonus by giving favored customers hefty discounts in exchange for larger orders. But she also knows that if every salesperson gives away hefty discounts, the firm will go bankrupt. So a routine emerges: all the salespeople get together every January and agree to limit how many discounts they offer in order to protect the company’s profits, and at the end of the year everyone gets a raise.
Or take a young executive gunning for vice president who, with one quiet phone call to a major customer, could kill a sale and sabotage a colleague’s division, taking him out of the running for the promotion. The problem with sabotage is that even if it’s good for you, it’s usually bad for the firm. So at most companies, an unspoken compact emerges: it’s okay to be ambitious, but if you play too rough, your peers will unite against you.
Routines and truces offer a type of rough organizational justice and because of them, conflict within companies usually “follows largely predictable paths and stays within predictable bounds that are consistent with the ongoing routine … The usual amount of work gets done, reprimands and compliments are delivered with the usual frequency … Nobody is trying to steer the organizational ship into a sharp turn in the hope of throwing a rival overboard.”
Most of the time, routines and truces work perfectly. Rivalries still exist, of course, but because of institutional habits, they’re kept within bounds and the business thrives.
However, sometimes even a truce proves insufficient. Sometimes an unstable peace can be as destructive as any civil war.
Somewhere in your office, buried in the desk drawer, there’s probably a handbook you received on your first day of work. It contains expense forms, rules, a list of relevant phone numbers, and the company’s organizational chart.
Now imagine what you would tell a new colleague who asked for advice about how to succeed at your firm. Your recommendations probably wouldn’t contain anything you’d find in the company’s handbook. Instead, the tips you would pass along – who is trustworthy; which secretaries have more clout than their bosses; how to manipulate the bureaucracy to get something done – are the habits you rely on every day to survive. If you could somehow diagram all your wok habits – and the informal power structures, relationships, alliances, and conflicts they represent – and then overlay your diagram with diagrams prepared by your colleagues, it would create a map of your firm’s secret hierarchy, a guide to who knows how to make things happen and who never seems to get ahead of the ball.
Truces are only durable when they create real justice. If a truce is unbalanced – if the peace isn’t’ real – then the routines often fail when they are needed most.
Creating successful organizations isn’t just a matter of balancing authority. For an organization to work, leaders must cultivate habits that create a real and balanced peace and, paradoxically, make it absolutely clear who’s in charge.
“You never want a serious crisis to go to waste”
Good leaders seize crises to remake organizational habits. Crises are such valuable opportunities that a wise leader often prolongs a sense of emergency on purpose.
A company with dysfunctional habits can’t turn around simply because a leader orders it. Rather, wise executives seek out moments of crisis – or create the perception of crisis – and cultivate the sense that something must change, until everyone is finally ready to overhaul the patterns they live with each day.
NASA administrators, for instance, tried for years to improve the agency’s safety habits, but those efforts were unsuccessful until the space shuttle Challenger exploded in 1986. In the wake of that tragedy, the organization was able to overhaul how it enforced quality standards.
Airline pilots, too, spent years trying to convince plane manufacturers and air controllers to redesign how cockpits were laid out and traffic controllers communicated. Then, a runway error on the Spanish island of Tenerife in 1977 killed 583 people and, within five years, cockpit design, runway procedures, and air traffic controller communication routines were overhauled.
📌 When companies predict (and manipulate) habits
There is evidence that a preference for things that sound “familiar” is a product of our neurology.
Our brains crave familiarity in music because familiarity is how we manage to hear without becoming distracted by all the sound.
Scientists at MIT discovered that behavioral habits prevent us from becoming overwhelmed by the endless decisions we would otherwise have to make each day, listening habits exist because, without them, it would be impossible to determine if we should concentrate on our child’s voice, or the noise from a busy street. Listening habits allow us to unconsciously separate important noises from those that can be ignored.
Much of the time, we don’t actually choose if we like or dislike a song. It would take too much mental effort. Instead, we react to the cues (“This sounds like all the other songs I’ve ever liked”) and rewards (“It’s fun to hum along!”) and without thinking, we either start singing, or reach over and change the station.
“Hey Ya!” song from Outkast needed to become part of an established listening habit to become a hit. And to become part of a habit, it had to be slightly camouflaged at first. Radio station’s DJs started making sure that whenever “Hey Ya!” was played, it was sandwiched between songs that were already popular.
Whether selling a new song, a new food, or a new crib, the lesson is the same: if you dress a new something in old habits, it’s easier for the public to accept it.
The usefulness of this lesson isn’t limited to large corporations, government agencies, or radio companies hoping to manipulate our tastes. The same insights can be used to change how we live.