Move Over Change Management, Change Habits Instead

When beginning a new HR lead role a few years ago, one of the first requests I had for the president — my new boss — was to tell me his organizational wish list. His first response was, “I want you to create a development culture in our business.”

That word “culture” struck me. I responded that cultures are just a series of habits, established over time, that we aren’t even aware of. A sort of flow of things. We just need to create new habits around developing people that over time become part of the fabric of our day versus an annual “event.” In usual HR form, we brought this idea to the organization, developed a change management plan and set off to create a development culture.

The two years worth of effort sort of worked. We definitely made progress. But, recently I read, “The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do In Life and Business,” by New York Times reporter Charles Duhigg, and two things became clear:

  1. I was missing the reward part of trying to establish new habits in development planning. You may not realize it, but anything you do naturally, habitually, you do because it gives you some reward.
  2. What have change management programs gotten us anyway? Be it an acquisition, new corporate technology system or new values — actual strong leaders did more to make change less painful and more quickly adopted than big change management efforts. Giving strong leaders those tools can definitely help. However, could focusing on changing people’s work habits be the next step in “change management practice,” revolutionizing how companies execute large-scale change? Perhaps! I am at least inspired by taking something and making it simpler and better.

The premise of the book is this: whatever habit you want to change (how you eat, how you work, quitting something, starting something, corporate culture), you have to first identify and break down the current habit into three parts of what Duhigg calls, The Habit Loop.

“First, there is a cue, a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use. Then there is the routine, which can be physical or mental or emotional. Finally, there is a reward, which helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future.

“Over time, this loop — cue, routine, reward; cue, routine, reward — becomes more and more automatic. The cue and reward become intertwined until a powerful sense of anticipation and craving emerges. Eventually, a habit is born.”

Unless you find new routines, your brain is happy expending less effort and the habit loop continues, effortlessly.

I’ll paraphrase Duhigg’s light, personal experiment to illustrate this point (there are many, many others that are more scientific). Every day at about 3 p.m. Duhigg walked to his work cafeteria, bought a cookie, chit chatted for a bit with others taking a similar break, then went back to his desk. The cookie-eating habit caused some weight gain and he wanted to stop eating the cookie everyday. He would say the cue was mid-afternoon and the routine was walking to the cafeteria and getting the cookie.

One would assume his reward was the sugary pick-me-up to get him through the rest of the day. But it wasn’t. He tried eating healthy things and it didn’t matter.

So, when the cue of 3 p.m. presented itself, this time he decided to try a new routine: instead of going to the cafeteria to get something to eat, he went to a co-worker’s office and chit-chatted. Guess what? He didn’t miss the eating at all. The real reward of visiting the cafeteria wasn’t about the cookie. The reward was connecting with co-workers!

I know what you’re thinking because I thought the same thing. “You can’t take a cookie-eating habit and apply that to large-scale corporate change.”

But actually you can, and he gives many in-depth examples. Examples of companies that made successful transformational change by changing habits, and leveraging “keystone” habits. Meaning, there are a few fundamental habits that enable dozens of other successful habits, similar to the habit of exercising often drives other healthy habits like eating better and seeking medical attention for illnesses.

“Keystone habits start a process that, over time, transforms everything,” said Duhigg. They act as powerful “levers” to get things done. I loved his Alcoa example, a company that went from one of the least safe companies in the world, to being one of the safest — and most profitable — in the world.

So back to the development culture. We created more opportunities to have development discussions, more effective ways to have those discussions and more people got developed. But, after having read this book, I would have approached it differently: clearly identify a “cue” for development, and identifying the reward for both managers and employees.

How are your large-scale changes going? Are you ready to try something new? Look at habits and behavior, and the rewards people now receive (above and beyond the obvious salary, bonuses and similar monetary rewards). Consider often-overlooked “keystone” habits like values and safety.

Who says a leadership blog can’t be fun? Try this: choose one small habit, like, the first thing you do when you walk into work. Break it down: the cue, the routine and the reward. Try replacing the routine with something new. What happened?

Click here for a link to the book, it’s a great read!

Lastly, a quote: “If the rate of change on the outside exceeds the rate of change on the inside, the end is near.” -Jack Welch

  1. I’m forwarding to the change management lead for our current, large-scale change project. We’ve talked about one or two of these aspects, but definitely have not yet incorporated them all. Thanks for sharing!


    1. That’s great! I wish you well on your endeavor, keep me posted how it goes!


  2. […] Move Over Change Management, Change Habits Instead […]


  3. This is a grest insight for change. I like the article. Thanks


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