Building New Habits

Are You Stuck in
Yesterday’s Decisions?

It may be hard to remember, but once upon a time the ultimate smartphone you could own was a BlackBerry.

At the start of 2007, Research in Motion (RIM), the producer of the BlackBerry, had strong relationships with carriers, a loyal base of business users, and the best hardware on the market when it came to text-input. Its competitors had none of those things. When Apple released the iPhone in June 2007, RIM’s CEO Mike Lazaridis was unimpressed by Apple’s decision to replace the traditional keyboard with a touchscreen:

“It’s the most expensive phone in the world, and it doesn’t appeal to business customers because it doesn’t have a keyboard.”

BlackBerry vs iPhone animation demonstrating old, unconscious work habits

BlackBerry was a product backed by an organization that had grounded itself in the habit of hardware and building “email machines” for its customers. RIM leadership was so confident in their assumptions about what customers looked for in a smart device that they missed the critical insight Apple was chasing: designing an all-in-one device for individual consumers rather than for businesses (and their email needs) would resonate far more with end users. RIM’s assumption and the habits underlying it ultimately led to the device’s downfall.

Why habits can help—and hurt.

Habits are a ubiquitous part of life. They’re neither good nor bad; they’re simply how our brains work. Every time you learn something, the circuitry in your brain undergoes a measurable physiological change. The more often you repeat a relatively complex behavior pattern, the stronger the associated brain circuits become and the less you have to think about them in order to successfully repeat the behaviors. Put simply, it’s easier and takes less energy to work on autopilot.

In some ways, this is great news for the brain. The more automatic your actions become, the more your energy is freed up to focus on other tasks and decisions. Habits can be simple (how you organize your workspace) or complex (what methodologies you follow to solve problems). However, there’s a shadow side to work that’s driven by automatic habits: it becomes unconscious. When the time comes that habits need to be broken (like in RIM’s case with BlackBerry), it’s hard to even know they’re present.

Leaders are increasingly faced with stressful, constantly changing environments. Many industries are facing major disruptions driven by globalization and digital forces. The old habits and ways of working will not be sufficient for the uncertain future ahead. For leaders to successfully adapt to this uncertainty, they will need to challenge the habits they’ve cultivated to get to where they are. Those old habits may not help…and they may even hurt future success.

Animation of a hammer hitting 3 different nails that shows the development work habits

In psychology, this is known as Maslow’s hammer. “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” If you only know how to work according to one habit, then you’ll try to solve every problem in the same way—for better and worse.

Organizations build habits too.

Just like individuals, organizations drive increased efficiency through the automatic power of habit. Communication routines, standard operating procedures, and customer service approaches are all habits that have emerged to reinforce a preferred way of working. Sometimes these organizational habits are intentionally designed. Sometimes they are passively adopted. Either way, over time these habits get out of date as customer preferences change and technologies evolve. These routines, processes, and policies all eventually enter the realm of “That’s the way we’ve always done it.”

The memory your organization has for these habits becomes the next burden to bear. As time passes and the business shifts how it operates or competes, obsolete policies and practices, outdated assumptions and mindsets, and underperforming products and services remain part of the organization far beyond their relevance. It can be as simple as dress codes that haven’t evolved with the norms of office culture and as complex as your company’s strategy itself.

What to do about it?

So, what can leaders do to free themselves and their organizations from the inertia of old, unconscious habits?

1. Start with the end in mind. To identify the habits that get in the way of success (individually or organizationally), the best place to start is with the end in mind. Single out a specific goal that has been a challenge to accomplish. Try to be as clear as possible around what your world would look like should you accomplish this goal. Then take inventory of the current approaches to doing this work to help you uncover what unconscious habits might be at play.

2. Ask what others see. Those closest to you are most likely to have noticed the little nuances about how you work, think, and act. Talk with them about how you might be getting in your own way and come into the discussion with an open curiosity. Try to treat everything you hear as though it’s the first time you’re hearing it. Avoid listening to confirm or validate what you think you already know. The whole point of the exercise is to discover what we are not already conscious of. Questions to ask:

  • What is the single most powerful change I could make to improve the way I work (or relate with my team, solve problems, etc.) to achieve my goal?
  • For the goal I’ve set, what’s the thing I do (or don’t do) that gets in the way the most?
  • What are some examples of situations in which I’ve been observed acting in this way?

3. Look for the pattern. At this point, you might be feeling suspicious of unconscious habits or wondering whether you’ve really found all of them. It will take some experimenting to really get an awareness of what’s happening. Bringing attention to behaviors is a good start…but once you have an idea of unconscious habits you might have, make sure you also ask what beliefs or internalized truths might be driving that behavior. MIT researchers discovered a simple neurological loop at the core of every habit, a loop that consist of three parts: a cue (your trigger), a routine (your response), and a reward (your incentive). What cues, routines, and rewards are in place to reinforce the unconscious habits you suspect are driving your behavior?

4. Make micro-commitments to activate the change. By now you’re prepared to let go of old patterns and let new patterns emerge. To do that, create a daily ritual where you “check in” on your old pattern and bring attention to the new desired way of working. You could start a daily practice every morning where you review a list of intentions you want to set for the day. You might start meetings by inviting team members to share distractions they could be bringing into the conversation. For organizations, it might mean redefining investment criteria before pursuing new products or vendors.

5. Pull in an accountability partner. Change is hard work. Pull in an outside observer to help hold you true to your commitments and bring your awareness and attention back into focus along the journey. Most likely this observer will be someone who provided that external feedback you asked for earlier. Now that you know which habit you want to change, you can identify the right person in your network to be your accountability partner.

6. Invest for the long-term. Changing organizational habits to a new way of thinking and operating takes time. It may be an emotional change for some. After all, when the habit kept alive successful business practices for years or decades, it can be difficult to understand why the change should happen at all. These transformations require significant financial and emotional investment, and they involve coordination at a grand scale. Yet, if carefully managed for the long term, organizations can shift their habits to succeed in the future. As a leader, it’s important to communicate the new expectations to your people and coach them to shift their behaviors.

Becoming aware of our unconscious mind is not easy work. These recommended steps aren’t a hard and fast rule, but rather a resource to help you get started. With that said, no prescribed routine can replace the hard work of bringing mindful attention to the change and creating space in your day to think and reflect on what commitments you can make.

The future we lead into will not become any less uncertain. Cultivating our awareness of and attention to our habits will help us count on ourselves to act deliberately in the present. As a leader, the more you can help yourself and your team let go of the illusion that perfect conditions, perfect processes, and perfect skills exist, the more you will be prepared to bring the creativity, openness, and ingenuity that’s essential in businesses today.

Want to learn more? I recommend starting with some of these resources:

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