You’re putting a change plan together. You’ve been reading books on the best processes you’ve brought in tool specialists to help you set things up.
You’ve trained a team, launched a sprint and a few weeks in you notice that the team isn’t getting anywhere.
The team seems blocked and troubled and it’s hard to pinpoint why. Managers say that you’ve got to “make” the team update the tool. Team members tell you that the way the teams are structured is terrible. Your development manager comes to you and tells you that Agile just won’t work in your technical environment—he’s tried Agile before and it just won’t work here.
Everyone is frustrated, tired and about to give up. Some have already given up they just haven’t spoken up about it yet.
What’s happening? A few weeks ago everyone seemed on board. They’d participated in training and planning and everyone saw the need to make a change.
Habits are the solution, habits are the problem.
Most of what we do each day is not conscious. Can you imagine what it would be like doing something as simple as crossing the road by carefully considering each action. Left foot first? Start now? What’s the trajectory of that car and how many seconds to impact?
You’d be dead before you reached the halfway point.
There’s a good reason our brains rely on heuristics and habits to do most of what we do each day. Our survival depends on it. And more than that so does our intelligence, creativity and willpower.
Researchers once did an experiment where subjects were given a random string of numbers to remember and asked to walk to another room in the building and repeat the numbers. On the way to the other room they were interrupted by someone who would offer them a piece of cake. The longer the number—e.g. the more brainpower it took to remember—the more likely the person was to eat that cookie.
In other words using brainpower reduced their willpower to be good about their diets.
And habits reduce the need for brainpower meaning more is available to apply to discipline. And more is available to funnel towards problem solving as well.
In another study subjects were placed in a room with either a bowel of radishes or a bowel of cookies and were asked not to eat any while they did a series of puzzles. The radish resisters had far more brainpower and performed better on the tests than the cookie non-eaters.
This isn’t surprising—at least not to me as someone who get’s terribly distracted by TV, food and funny cat videos. I need to shut down my internet connectivity whenever I write and dread the day Wifi becomes common on airplanes as I’ll lose one of my most productive spaces.
But, I hear you asking, what the heck does all this have to do with my failing change program?
It’s our habits that define our organizations and even though we feel pain we inevitably fall victim to the habit loops our organizations are in.
Why do you think it’s so hard to quit smoking?
The physical dependance on nicotine lasts only a few days but the habit lives on in many of us. I’ve quit smoking many times in my life—I used to joke that I was really good at it because I’d done it so many times.
And it wasn’t til a few years ago that I quit for good—seriously I have no fear that I’ll start up again. The reason? Gratitude.
You see when I quit the last time I did so by making a mental list of all the things I love about smoking. Seriously, all the things I truly love. LIke the permission to take a break and sit outside, or meeting a stranger in a bus station while traveling in Europe, or keeping my hands busy at a party, or, my favorite, enjoying a nice relaxing smoke after a delicious meal.
How did this list help? And how can it help you?
This list helps because what I was doing was making an inventory of all of the triggers and rewards smoking offers. Not the nicotine buzz but everything else.
Three steps to freedom.
You see each and every habit in your life and your organization is made up of three things:
The Trigger: something that signals it’s time to start the habit—like finishing a meal.
The Habit: the thing itself—in my case smoking.
The Reward: the payoff—e.g. a chance to sit back and relax and savor the meal I just had and the company I’m with.
All I did is to insert a new habit—a cup of decaf coffee—in the place of smoking and somewhat effortlessly I was able to quit longing for an after-meal smoke.
In your organization you may have the habit of a large upfront design process that’s triggered by project inception and rewarded by a feeling of surety about where you are going.
Moving to an iterative approach without addressing that some people will miss the pay off of feeling sure about something means that they’ll feel unbalanced unsure and will sneak the old habit into place.
FUD: Fear Uncertainty and Doubt
Most irrationality can in fact by tied back to the famous FUD trifecta. The habit loop is one way to understand what’s happening in your organization but the truth is you’ve got to expect all this.
Many times I’ve worked with organizations that seem upset at the irrationality of “those people over there” meaning their managers, or their reports, or another department, or the executives. Someone, anyone but them is acting irrationally.
Which always makes me wonder what kind of people they’ve been witnessing. They certainly must be different from the people I’ve known because they seem to imagine that rationality is the norm and irrationality is the surprise.
In my experience—and I suspect in yours too—the exact opposite is true.
So get curious. Plan for irrationality even welcome and expect it. In yourself and in others.
Above all else get a sense of humor about it. You’ll be happier for it and, bonus, you’ll have more brainpower available yourself to find your way through these murky waters of change.