change management

Are your Habits Serving you Well?

by Trudy on February 28, 2014

We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit. – Aristotle

I have been giving lots of thought to organizational habits. Organizational habits are simply a collective of individual habits. Organizational habits are way of behaving that we have learned, repeated, automated and give little critical consideration to. Changing habits is a difficult, but doable task if we are realistic and prepared and utilize the support of the group. It still needs to happen person by person, but the team can support each other through the process.

Habits. Every one of us has our own unique collection of them. Some are good for us, others not so much. We learn these habits when we have done something so repetitively that it permanently engraves connections into our brain that automates our behavior. We react instinctively, without much consideration. The positive side of a habit is that it is mentally efficient, saving us conscious effort, freeing up our mind to tend to other and new things. We establish the habit because there is a pay off for us, it does something for us that benefited us enough to keep doing it, over and over, and over again. The down side to habits is that even though there is a payoff in one way, it could be damaging to us in other ways. (French fries vs. vegetables anyone?).

This “context dependent repetition” is hard to break free of. In fact, researchers have shown that once engraved into the brain the habit never actually disappears, it only diminishes in its strength. Which explains relapses after 15 years of not doing….(insert your dependency here).

So how do we replace an old habit with a new behavior? Well, actually you won’t ever replace it. The best you can do is try to create another equally strong (or stronger) alternative habit.

And while I am bursting bubbles everywhere, that enduring belief that it takes 21 days to establish a habit, well it’s unproven. Really. It turns out this commonly trotted out guideline was never demonstrated scientifically. So in 2010 researchers Lally, van Jaarsveld, Potts, & Wardle, at UCL in London decided to put it to the test. What they found is that on average it takes 66 days for an activity to become automated. And with all averages, it is the neat way of saying some people were faster, some were much longer to automate.

Keep in mind, when you are working to create an equally strong alternative habit you need to be realistic about the effort and commitment required. If the old habit has been exercised daily for years, the alternative habit is going to take time to be strong enough to compete with it. If you are making a complete change in habit, it will take much longer than a small alteration (tying back to one small step at a time is easier). And finally if you are doing it alone, without support or reinforcement, it is harder. This is where the advantage of team comes in.

All of this is critical to keep in mind when instituting change in your organization. It will help to manage expectations of timing/results and encourage you to not give up too soon, or take on too much at once. Recognize it will be a slow start, there will be fear and discomfort, there will be incompetency to start, mistakes and set backs will happen. Just start and keep going. Time truly is your friend in habit formation, there is no quick fix.

Okay, so how will you install this new neural pathway? I read many articles and pieces of research and compiled what I believe to be a sensible approach.

  1. Know specifically what you want to do differently and when the habit occurs
  2. Know exactly what the new behavior needs to look like
  3. Clearly identify the pay off for the new behavior. It needs to be as strong or stronger than the pay off for the already established habit.
  4. Break it into small steps, and do one small step at a time. Start with something that will make an important difference. Then move onto the next so it is a gradual, gentle change that is not threatening or too uncomfortable.
  5. Create the environment for the new habit to happen and flourish, and to make the old habit harder to do. This breaks people out of their automation long enough to consider an alternative choice.
  6. Start. Just begin to behave in the desired way. Pursue it, commit to it every day.
  7. Repeat, repeat, repeat. And then repeat again. Consistency and frequency matter in brain engraving.
  8. Surround yourself with others that can help, support, make it easier.
  9. Create your own habit changing tag line to keep you focused. My learner who enjoys procrastination has a line he pulls out when he sees he is drifting off, “Focus and finish first, fun and fooling follows”. It often is exactly the mind shift he needs to keep him focused and keep the behavior an active consideration.

Habit is habit, and not to be flung out of the window by any man, but coaxed downstairs a step at a time. – Mark Twain

One thing for sure, keep repeating your new behavior, consistently, frequently, and it will eventually automate. When? Not sure. But you will know it has automated when you realize you are doing something without a conscious thought provoking it. (But then again you may not even notice that for some time!).


Trudy and I have written many posts on the topic of change – readiness to change, the culture of change, the implicit difficulty of change, the struggles people and organizations experience in maintaining change.

One of the specific sectors PROVOKE has consistently been invited to work within is population health – a context where change is often desired and fostered. But as you can well imagine, trying to promote and grow change within populations is NOT an easy task.

I think that is why this initiative and associated video was so impactful to me – it marries change and health in a really fun, easy (if you can squat!), and rewarding (on a couple levels!) way.

This video is a brilliant example of how change should be implemented. Changing behavior doesn’t have to be awful.

Yes, it is only a small behavior change. But if you look at the broader implications the video suggests, people are exercising willingly, people are connecting to each other in ways that likely would not happen naturally with public transportation, and people are smiling, laughing and having fun.

How do you incorporate change in your life? Does it feel like pulling teeth?

If so, I challenge you to think about how you could sprinkle in some elements captured in this video.


The Other Side of Things

by Trudy on May 24, 2013

I had the very fortunate opportunity to be in London last week, and of course it left me with many things to think about.

But the whole driving on the left side of the road, always slightly disorients me (thank goodness my mom taught me to look BOTH ways before I crossed the street otherwise there could have been some very unfortunate human/car incidents!!!).

A taxi driver informed us that they drive on the left because in the days of knights, they would hold the horse reigns in their left hand and their weapon in their right. To them, it was natural to carry on the tradition of riding on the left of their roads, despite much of the rest of the world going opposite. (We had a good laugh considering what today’s “weapon” would be, and settled on the symbolic use of a finger as today’s sword.).

And some of those roads, built hundreds of years ago, are essentially wide enough for one lane of traffic and a row of parked cars. Here we would make the road one way, but not in London, they kept it two ways and it appeared turned the game of driving into one of what we would call “chicken” – he who blinks last goes first.

It seemed funny that there was such a commitment to how they did things in the past, even when “today’s logic” may dictate a different (better?) option.

But then I made another observation. In this heavily congested urban area, traffic moves smoothly, maybe slowly, but smoothly. No honking horns, seemingly no driver rage, no use of the finger weapon. People get where they are going. Hmmmm.

We would routinely see moving cars stop or make room to let other cars weave past them through three lanes to get across the traffic to make their turn.

It made me think of bumpy organizational mergers, bringing different values together into one environment, and the struggle to determine which values will flourish.

For London, and virtually any city with its provenance, balancing old and new is an ongoing struggle. Seems that “old” value of good old-fashioned civility; sharing and co-operation may have worked out for them after all.

The idea that old and new are critical for balance was crystallized for me when I came face to face with this at the British Museum. Sums it all up. We need both.



Proud to be Mediocre!

August 12, 2011

NO WAY. After a tough couple of years trying to make sense of the economy and in doing so scrambling to get by with as little resources and investment as possible, do you now feel like things inside your organization are back on track?  They sure are better than they were.  Customers are happier and […]

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So Much Room for Misunderstanding!

June 3, 2011

You are so pleased that you’ve revised the management performance plan, intending to remove the unintended incentive to cover up mistakes. BUT, the team saw it as another step away from the customer. You recognized that the team had been through too much change and announce, “It is time to get back to the basics.”  […]

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