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The Power of Habits

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

Recent experiences attempting to make a minor change in my own daily routine have helped me appreciate the complexity of implementing lasting change in an organisation of any size.

My habit is one to which I am sure most can relate: spending excessive amounts of time checking my phone. Upon realisation of this I decided it was time to take action so, with abundant enthusiasm (and little planning), I decided to break away from my cellular device.

However, as with the late-night snackers and habitual nail-biters of the world, I found little success curtailing my habit in the first instance. On reflection I found the root of this to be two-fold: first, I did not understand the root of my habit before taking action on it; and second, I attempted to make a single comprehensive change without a structured approach.

Experience across change management projects has given me valuable insights into the key components that make up any habit and which, if properly understood, are central to any successful change effort.

  • The trigger: this refers to the ‘why’ of the habit. Identifying the cause of a habit is no easy task and is often more subliminal than tangible.

  • The routine: this refers to the reaction, behaviours and emotions that materialise after the trigger. The routine tends to be the easiest component to alter, as the trigger and reward are more powerfully ingrained into your subconscious.

  • The reward: this refers to the perceived benefit that is felt from engaging in the habit and will encourage future instances of the routine.

If you are able to identify the trigger, the routine and the reward of your habit, you will find that you are better able to dissect the best means of creating lasting change. For instance, I noticed that I have a compulsion to glance at my phone whenever I felt disengaged from any meaningful activity.

This knowledge should help to construct the approach to implementing change. My initial failings were rooted in the fact that I tried to alter my habit in one fell-swoop. A more tactful approach would be to make concerted and deliberate micro-changes rather than a wholesale alteration. My response was to make it incrementally more difficult to turn to my phone, whether that be as simple as keeping my phone out of reach when buckling down for a Netflix binge.   

In making a small change to a routine you will find that implementing change is not always a question of reversal, but rather a process of replacing.

This same approach can equally be employed when implementing change in a large-scale organisation. Blanket, wholesale changes to a poorly understood habit or activity will result in discomfort and potentially stiff resistance from employees. Involvement in multiple change programmes has taught me that employers find success delivering transformation by first developing an understanding of the key routines or processes that an employee follows, before making deliberate and targeted iterative changes. In this manner, organisations can better understand the relevance of an activity to an employee’s daily routine. This approach will help an organisation to anticipate where and when resistance may arise to proposed changes, whilst providing impacted employees with the support needed to drive successful adoption.