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February 13, 2015

Change: It’s about Breaking Habits

After years of procrastinating, I have finally started on a weight loss kick – made up primarily of additional exercise and cutting my cake habit. I’d got into the habit of having a cake every day and I needed to give myself a good-talking-to to break out of it. Don’t get me wrong – I still like cakes and I was all over the bake sale at work last week – but my daily pattern is broken.

And that’s the thing about habits. We get into the routine and it is hard to break out of it. Of course this is exactly what the marketers want. They want you to always reach for the particular brand of product in the supermarket; or to make that daily visit to the coffee shop on the way to work. As humans we like the stability and the (emotional) reassurance that habits provide. And once we get into a habit, it is very difficult to get out of it. Old habits die hard!

But I am not just rambling here about my sweet tooth. My point is that habits are also very powerful in the work environment. We get into the habit of working a particular process in the way that we are used to, and we are fiercely resistant to the thought of changing it. We are comfortable with our work routines. They mean we are master of our own particular arena – possibly even seen as a local expert – and being able to work our processes quickly without stress is comforting: it provides us with emotional security. After all, the first four of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs are physiological needs; safety; belonging; and esteem: all of these are delivered by having a work routine that we are confident of and comfortable with. Old work habits die hard too!

No wonder change is hard!

Change is hard because the status quo in work is made of up work routines and habits that we know (and love). The route through the process may be long and winding, but we know our way through it and this is comforting (it may even give us status if we are one of the few able to weave our way through it).

Habits become firmly embedded in our psyche and can’t be changed just because management have adopted a new mantra: “Customer First”, or “Simplify and Streamline”, or “Lean”, or whatever.

As individuals we need a very firm kick up the behind to change a habit. It’s taken me years to even contemplate changing my cake habit, and I still need to hold firm! That “kick” can come from inside ourselves (“I really need to get out of this rut”), or externally – the “burning platform” of a business in trouble. Importantly, it needs an active and conscious choice to start the change.

Most change initiatives fail because we like our habits too much. We’d rather stick with the devil we know than venture into the unknown. Process improvement may sound wonderful – streamlined processes; more fulfilling work; greater involvement in problem solving; better customer service leading to greater profitability and (we hope) better pay. But the magnetic draw of the habits we are used to is even stronger than those fine concepts. To be persuaded to change we really need to give ourselves a good (mental) shake.

The good news is that the seeds of habit change can be fairly easily sown – though it does need a conscious choice. Change that morning coffee habit by taking a slightly different route into work. Change the brand purchasing habit by visiting a different supermarket with a different range on offer. Change (in my case) the cake habit by doing some yoga each day and enjoying the flexibility of mind and body it creates. All habits have a “trigger” and the first step to change is eliminating the old trigger.

The question is how to sow these seeds in the work environment? We come in every day and sit at our desks/ workstations and get on with the daily routine (habit) – talking to our colleagues and processing stuff in the same way we always have. How do we shake that up sufficiently to start us thinking about making changes, and then get involved in process change? Extortions from above and new Mission Statements are unlikely to do the job! We need to change the triggers that set off the old habits.

Let me offer a suggestion. I’m sure there are other ways of sowing the seeds of habit change in the workplace but this seems a relatively low cost/ low risk way of starting things rolling.

Get the team together that work a particular process (the whole team from right across the process with every department involved), and ask them what they don’t like about the process. Make sure the atmosphere is relaxed and light-hearted (so as to avoid a blame-game developing) and you’ll soon come up with a list of complaints – “Team A don’t give us the right information at the right time”; “Team B don’t collect the information we need to invoice the customer correctly”; and so on. Most of the problems raised will be communication issues and misunderstandings (and probably complaints about IT). Getting everyone together will help start to build relationships between teams and thus resolve these issues. Once people start enjoying working their problems out together, then you can introduce some structured process improvement activity for regular weekly/ fortnightly meetings. People like working together to solve problems and the habits of the past can begin to get shaken up. Change then might just start to happen of its own accord (though management need to be open to making the changes put forward).

Personally I would avoid giving this initiative some grand project name with banner communication throughout the business – then staff will know you are trying to “make” them change. Just organise informal regular meetings (effectively Quality Circles) with some low-key facilitation and training in process improvement.

Of course once we’ve broken out of one habit, we like to form a new one. The trick is to make the new pattern one that is open to questioning the process and promotes working with others to improve it.

What do you think?