Shifting habits and flipping systems3

Shifting habits and flipping systems

When you work in complex systems that are problematic, you tend to hear a lot of phrases like,

  • “I have no control over how others act.”
  • “This process is broken.”
  • “They are incompetent.”
  • “There’s a lack of leadership.”
  • “There’s a lack of ownership.”
  • “We need a shift in culture.”
  • “You can’t change people.”
  • “There’s too much to fix.”


Sound familiar?

All of these statements are two things:

  1. Vague: It’s unclear what to do next.
  2. Disheartening: If you’re not prepared, they can sneak in and make you want to spend the rest of the day in the fetal position under your desk.


When these phrases are uttered in a meeting they’re usually met with nods of agreement. Then everyone leaves the meeting feeling depressed or overwhelmed.


The clouds are parting

What’s so brilliant about the December book pick, “The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business” by Charles Duhigg is that he gives us a way out from being trapped in those thoughts. While reading the first chapter I felt like Neo learning about the Matrix.

One of his messages is (and I’m paraphrasing here) that individuals follow habits, organizations follow routines, and then large groups and societies are a collection of those habits and routines.

For those of you who might not have read the book, I’ll give a quick re-cap of how Duhigg describes habits.

Cue -> Routine -> Reward. This cycle reinforces a habit or creates a craving.

The cue is the trigger. It’s the event, signal, emotion, etc. that tells your brain to execute the routine. Then the routine is what you do, think, or feel. The reward is the benefit you get from executing the routine. If the reward is good enough your brain will remember it as a habit and you may start anticipating or craving the result. Fold in a belief that the habit is worthwhile and a support group and you’re more likely to stick to it.

So habits can explain why you’re able to diligently work on your business every morning. Or why you reach for comfort food when an angry client email arrives in your inbox.

I encourage you to pick up a copy of the book if you haven’t already because it’s full of interesting research and case studies. I pulled out four takeaways that we’ll explore further:

  1. The mental shift – seeing habits everywhere
  2. The power of workbooks
  3. Simplify for speed
  4. How to start and grow a movement


This progression takes us from noticing habits in our daily lives to reflecting via workbooks, then tweaking habits to move faster and perform better, and finally, using this information to scale impact beyond our immediate sphere of influence.


1. The mental shift- seeing habits everywhere

In the prologue of the book, we meet an American army major working in Kufa, Iraq. He had been analyzing the activities leading up to riots in the region. One day he theorized that if they could keep the food vendors out of the plazas, then maybe the crowd wouldn’t grow to such a large size, which could become dangerous if an individual or small group decided to cause trouble.

Turns out he was right.

Not one person in Kufa would have told me that we could influence crowds by taking away the kebab stands, but once you see everything as a bunch of habits, it’s like someone gave you a flashlight and a crowbar and you can get to work.”

– Anonymous army major

Application to daily life

The mental shift comes from recognizing habits around you. Grab a sheet of paper and draw three columns with the headings “Cue”, “Routine” and “Reward. As you go through a typical day, take notes about the habits that you observe. The routines will probably be the most obvious, the cues and rewards maybe less so. Continue this exercise every so often until you find yourself recognizing habits everywhere.

Some potential cues to think about:

  • When your client does something, like asking you for a status update.
  • When a date comes up. Especially if your product lifecycle or business is cyclical. What types of habits do you have towards the beginning of a project? In the middle? At the end?
  • When information is shared or collected.
  • At a time of day.
  • When something stressful happens.


If you’re stuck on how to identify cues, routines, and rewards, the Appendix of the book has some great tips.


2. The power of workbooks

Kids use workbooks all the time in school but at some point, we adults stopped using them. Duhigg describes how writing out habits and planned routines helped multiple people from patients who had undergone hip or knee replacement surgeries, to employees in companies like Starbucks, Deloitte Consulting, and the Container Store.

I found the case of Starbucks interesting and applicable to what you might be dealing with. Starbucks hires many entry-level employees and not all have developed habits of discipline. It depends on the problem you’re trying to solve but I’m guessing that you’ll not always find yourself surrounded by Ph.Ds.

Starbucks recognized the need to help their employees deal with stressful moments. When we’re in pain, tired, or stressed out our willpower muscle is weaker, so creating habits would help baristas better deal with any difficult moments.

In response, Starbucks created workbooks as part of their employee training and had employees write down ahead of time how they planned to act when the stressful moment arrived. By making this exercise part of their company training curriculum, Starbucks was able to institutionalize habit changes.

The manuals taught workers how to respond to specific cues, such as a screaming customer or a long line at the cash register. Managers drilled employees, role-playing with them until the responses became automatic. The company identified specific rewards- a grateful customer, praise from a manager – that employees could look to as evidence of a job well done.

– Charles Duhigg, author, describing the training at Starbucks

Application to daily life

Create your own workbook. You could make one just for your own use or to help other people on your team.

The workbook can be simple. Identify a few problem routines in your organization from the list you gathered in part 1. Determine what cue people were reacting to and add this simple phrase “When [cue] happens, my plan is to….”

You could use this in an hour-long workshop or in a mentor-mentee setting. Have everyone answer that question privately and then role-play or discuss in pairs or as a group. Then practice throughout the week and schedule some check-ins to reflect on how the habit is going.

If you want to level up, take a cue from companies Duhigg referenced like Starbucks, Mckinsey, etc. and add in frameworks to help standardize your routines. Bonus points if your frameworks spell out industry words like Starbucks’ LATTE (Listen, Acknowledge, Take action, Thank, and Explain) method. 🙂


3. Simplify for speed

In the case of Tony Dungy, a football coach, his philosophy was to focus on improving his teams by modifying their existing habits. By keeping old cues and rewards, and practicing and automating routines, his team members were able to execute faster and better than the competition.

Errors in football can happen when players start to second-guess the play and end up analyzing multiple data points and making decisions in the moment. Thinking also takes up precious time in a football game. Dungy realized that if he could remove decision making from the game then his team would be faster than the opponent, eliminating the need to memorize hundreds of routines or plays.

To accomplish that, Dungy helped his each of his players look for specific cues that would kick off an automatic routine and then they practiced a handful of routines until they became habits. If a complex game like football can be reduced to simpler cues and habits, it’s exciting to think about what could be possible in other situations.

Champions don’t do extraordinary things. They do ordinary things, but they do them without thinking, too fast for the other team to react. They follow the habits they’ve learned.

– Tony Dungy, football coach

Application to daily life

Your project may be complex but there are probably many opportunities to streamline and react faster. There’s no need to start from scratch or re-design your approach every time. By turning some of your activities into habits, you’ll probably find more time for strategic thinking and reflection.

Look at any processes that are time-consuming or unstandardized. Handoffs between individuals or teams are a good place to look. When an action occurs upstream in the product life cycle, who will react and how? When a comment is made in a meeting, how will you respond? Work out your response to that cue (using the workbook you created in part 2) and practice until it becomes a habit. Getting your team involved is a great way to brainstorm and take advantage of your relative strengths.


4. How to start and grow a movement

So you’ve identified ways to improve your own habits, and maybe even your team’s habits. But how can you influence people you don’t know and interact with on a daily basis?

A movement starts because of the social habits of friendship and the strong ties between close acquaintances.

It grows because of the habits of a community, and the weak ties that hold neighborhoods and clans together.

And it endures because a movement’s leaders give participants new habits that create a fresh sense of identify and a feeling of ownership.

– Charles Duhigg, author

Duhigg talks about the power of the Montgomery bus boycott and how Rosa Parks’ action triggered such a response when people before her had made similar decisions and not sparked a movement. When Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat, she was such a fixture in the community, with connections in so many places, that people who knew her felt the need to support her. Her friends encouraged people they knew to change their habits by boycotting the buses.

Eventually, the peer pressure of groups took over and people would act to keep their social standing with weak ties in their community.

Later on, Martin Luther King, Jr. helped to give the movement more positive momentum by shifting the conversation from a battle or struggle to a civil rights movement based on non-violent tactics. Then smaller groups were created to help people learn new behaviors to support this new identity.

Application to daily life

Look at all three levels of your system, your close ties, weak ties, and the larger group identity. Observe the habits among your close ties. Are their habits in alignment with the vision you are trying to reach? If not, focus on adjusting those habits.

If your immediate group is following those habits, look towards expanding your reach through weak ties. How insular or cross-cutting is your group? Consider rotations or networking events to share ideas across other groups. Observe the current peer pressures of the group and if they support or counteract what you are trying to build.

To grow beyond the close ties and weak ties in a large enterprise or community movement you need a platform and an authority voice. This leader needs to provide a compelling message of what could be and some of the new behaviors needed. They should also appeal to people’s desire to have an identity and to be part of something important. Look at what leaders in your organization are saying and if their rhetoric matches their decisions. Are the new behavior patterns clear? Is there a way for small communities to develop to discuss how to define and execute those behaviors?


Related reading


What other insights did you draw from this book? How will you apply them?


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