Designing Organization Habits for Success

By Geok Chwee Ong: 

Humans are being of Habits. As what Gandhi said:

"Your beliefs become your thoughts,

Your thoughts become your words,

Your words become your actions,

Your actions become your habits,

Your habits become your values,

Your values become your destiny."

Charles Duhigg shared the three-step loop of habit in his book, "The Power of Habit":

  • Cue: A trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use.
  • Routine: The activities (physical, mental, emotional) that take place automatically.
  • Reward: Helps the brain to figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future.

When the cue and reward become intertwined until a craving emerges, a habit is formed. Once a habit is formed, our mind goes into an autopilot mode and we execute the routine once the cue is triggered. That explains why you start munching potatoes chips at the end of a long day when you watch your favorite TV programme. That also explains why some can wake up at 5am in the morning to go for their morning run without procrastination when their alarm rings.

Once we understand the parts that form the habit, we have the power to change them. The key is to dive deeper into the motivation that triggers the habit and replace the routine to one that you desire but will deliver the same reward that your brain craves.

The interesting thing is, organizations also have their habits. We often talk about organization culture. We describe the core values of our organization and the culture that we desire to inculcate to achieve the mission and vision of the organization. However, what exactly formulates the organization culture? Charles articulated the Habits of successful Organizations where through cultivating keystone habits, the organization can formulate the behaviors for success. Such habits have to be carefully chosen and designed.

Keystone habits are habits that have the power to start a chain reaction. When we understand the key trigger points, we design the routine that we would like the organization to follow and the reward that will get the habit loop spinning into an autopilot mode.

To get an organization to develop success habits, there are key elements that must be present:

  • Be clear of the Keystone Habits that are core to the organization and STICK TO IT!

Habits are the foundation of organization culture. That is very powerful, as newcomers will integrate into the culture very quickly. It takes time to cultivate the habits into routines that the employees follow automatically. We have seen leaders who wanted to change the organization culture and started programmes that lasted only quarters if not months. There will be workshops organized that involve all employees to talk about the culture that the organization desires. There will be excitement when the HR department starts to dish out nice booklets showing how the employees should behave. However, very often, the excitement dies down and nothing seems to have changed. This is similar to our own "weight loss" resolution at the start of the year. We start out enthusiastically with a clear target of losing say, 5 kg of fats. When the alarm clock rings, we jump out of the bed and go for our run. As the weeks past, it gets harder and harder to jump out of the bed. What happens? We need to push ourselves past the phase of making conscious decisions to go for the run before it becomes a routine that goes into an autopilot mode. The reward must be something that we truly believe in and crave for. Push on consistently till the habit is cultivated and sticks.

Organizations have to analyze the keystone habits that will support the desired culture and be patient to drill that into the organization. Habits take time to cultivate. The good news is that, once formed, they will stick.

  • The rewards must be aligned to the habits that the organization is cultivating: Habits are formed when there are cravings

Be clear about the behavior that we are rewarding. The reward is what creates the craving that makes a habit so hard to change. In an organization that promotes "Innovation" as its culture, is it creating the right reward for the "innovation" routine to take place in a habit loop? Many organizations are lost in short-term measurement of immediate revenue results. If the rewards in terms of promotion and bonuses to the employees are purely based on revenue achievements, you can understand why innovation is not taking place.

  • Design Routines that will help Employees execute automatically

In "The Power of Habit", Charles used Starbucks as a case study. It is a daunting task to drive a consistent organization culture throughout an organization that has more than 150,000 employees across 55 countries. Starbucks deploys training manuals where they help employees to use routines designed to deliver consistent customer experiences. As they practice those plans, they become automatic. For example, a routine that they mapped out as "LATTE" helps employees to handle angry customers:

  • Listen to the customer
  • Acknowledge their complaint
  • Take action by solving the problem
  • Thank them
  • Explain why the problem occurred

The trigger point of this routine is an angry customer. When that cue happens, employees will automatically use "LATTE" to handle the situation and the reward would be a controlled situation and a good performance review by their supervisors. When the routines are designed and practiced beforehand, it takes away the need for the employee to make decisions on how they should handle the situation. This becomes a habit of the organization.

That explains why SOPs (Standard Operating Procedures) are important where variation is not desired. Even in an environment where we encourage innovation, we have to put in place a routine to enable the employees to automatically go into a mode of searching for innovation. Leaving everyone to figure out how to innovate will not help in cultivating the right habit. That probably explains why in many organizations while the leaders are shouting about "innovation", the employees are wondering how they can start. Designing a framework or process into the routine will help the employees go into a habit of innovating without stopping and wondering where to start.

An organization is a complex organism and if we do not carefully designing the habits to cultivate, it can morph into something very different from what we want it to become.

Author: Geok Chwee Ong

Date Posted: 
11 Feb 2015 - 6:15am