Out of Habit: Breaking Routines and Behaviors That Hinder Deselection

Aug 10, 2017 by John McPhee

Each day, there are thousands of subconscious decisions that we make out of habit. Habits are extremely powerful and without them we would be overwhelmed by the decisions we are required to make each day. It is part of the reason Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs and others have made a habit out of wearing the same or similar outfits each day; they are attempting to reduce decision fatigue and automate as many less significant choices as possible so they can focus on the decisions that matter.

Habits, however, are a double-edged sword. Habits can just as easily nudge us towards unproductive, misaligned or even damaging behaviors. It is because of this duality that makes habits one of the hardest organizational hurdles to overcome during deselection.

Maybe you are a CFO who is accustomed to using Excel spreadsheets for your board reports. Then, you implement an ERP that can produce board reports for you. Your habits might very well keep you using Excel for a long time after the launch of the ERP. You might not even realize how your own behavior is influencing the actions of others, directly impacting the adoption of the ERP and your ROI on what was supposed to be a transformative implementation.

Habits typically provide a level of comfort or reward, subtly incentivizing people to fall back into business as usual and subverting deselection, not because of serious disagreement with the strategic plan or the inability of the person to learn a new skill, but because of there is a degree of safety, reward and familiarity pulling individuals towards the old way of doing things. This is true for personal habits like smoking cigarettes or going to the gym as well as professional habits such as creating proposals in a specific template or getting through all your emails each day. If you are the CFO in the example above, you may continue to use Excel (potentially while continuing to emphasize the value of the ERP to your staff) because of the comfort of knowing how to create the report in Excel or safety of knowing that it was done correctly because of your familiarity with Excel over the new ERP.

In one organization, we saw a sales team where, like at Honda, quarterly sales goals had been removed to refocus the organization on longer-term priorities. Despite the sales executive being aligned to the change, his sales team almost immediately set up their own scorecards and started measuring themselves against each other as a way of measuring their performance. None of the practical, process-focused changes such as removing the quotas from reports had any impact because the habits of the sales people had not been fully addressed. Instead, the sales people had to talk through why they felt they needed this kind of ranking, what it accomplished for them as individuals and as a team, and how they could experience success, and feel rewarded, without it.

Successful cultures of deselection and alignment can reorient around the most important priorities quickly, shedding habits in the process. When something is deselected, it is important to take a minute to catalog the habits that are being challenged by the deselection. These lingering habits may be the result of lagging processes, systems and incentives or perceived value of the old way of doing things. To help break these old behaviors, support your colleagues in idetinfying the habits that are getting in the way of organizational transformation, then create barriers to prevent falling back on old habits (such as restricting access to old but popular software programs or removing mentions of products that you are trying to discontinue from all sales and marketing materials) and develop incentives to create new habits that are aligned with the changes in your organization brought about by deselection.

This is the fifth post in a six-part blog series that examines the cultural barriers to deselection. They include the impacts of ownership, identity, emotion, habit and collaboration on the ability of an organization to deselect, align and increase capacity. The first post provides an overview of deselection and why the cultural aspects of it are important. Read on here.

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