A better way to welcome people to your organization

Imagine for a moment what it’s like to join a new organization, particularly a large one spread across locations. Don’t worry if it’s been a while since you started a new job. Things haven’t changed that much.

You go through an orientation process, largely about rules, tools, and values. You get access and accounts, a desk. You meet the people on your team and a few others sitting around you. 

Then, over a period of many years, you slowly build your network and learn how to navigate the organization. The more connected you become, the easier it is to find who and what you need to get things done. The richer your network, the more valuable you are to the organization. 

Here’s a way to significantly speed up this process.

Day 1

As part of the orientation process, you form people into Working Out Loud Circles, peer support groups of 4-5 people. They can be in different locations or different divisions, depending on your process and on the kind of connectivity you’d like to develop.

Normally, in your very first meeting, you start by picking a goal and listing people related to that goal. These Circles for new joiners will be even simpler, since each person already has a goal of getting to know people in their new organization. To make it easy for them, you provide a curated list of relationships that would be helpful for them given their particular job. This list will include relevant groups and influencers, as well as management.

Over the coming 12 weeks, each Circle will follow simple steps in the Circle Guides customized to include your organization’s examples and technology. So the exercises each week will refer to specific people and specific channels, making it straightforward to start building meaningful relationships at work.

Day 10

By the second meeting, the Circle members have already bonded as a group. They’re all going through the same process together, helping each other, and they feel it’s safe and confidential. It’s rare that anyone at work has a trusted mentor, so being part of a trusted group of peers can be quite powerful.

Together, they're already making small contributions to people in their relationship lists. It might be as simple as offering recognition by pressing a Follow button on the intranet. Or they might offer appreciation with a comment thanking someone for work they’ve done or a resource they’ve shared. They’re using a range of tools, not for the sake of digital transformation but to build relationships that matter.

After the second meeting, their network is already bigger than it would have been using a traditional on-boarding process. 

Day 100

Week after week, following the steps the Circle process, the group continues to do a wider range of things in the service of building relationships. They’re joining communities, asking questions, helping other new joiners, finding and sharing useful resources. 

While they further expand their network and deepen relationships with the people in it, they are developing a new mindset and new set of habits: working in an open, collaborative way. 

By their last meeting, they're able to Work Out Loud towards any goal. That’s a capability recently described as “perhaps the most fundamental digital workplace skill.” For their next project or problem, whatever it is, they’ll be able to find people that can help them and build relationships so they’re more likely to collaborate.

The results

When you welcome employees this way, you increase engagement and connectivity, and you reduce the time it takes to be productive. Instead of learning from binders in classrooms, new joiners learn by doing and collaborating in peer support groups.

Now imagine if all your new joiners, in their first few months, developed the habit of working in a more agile, visible, networked way. Imagine the positive change in your culture, the improved effectiveness of your people, and the greater return on your technology investments.

When you change how you welcome people to your organization, you have the chance to create sustainable change that feels good. But only if you imagine a better way, and take a step.

“Their motivation was completely gone.”

At first, the doctors had no idea what could have caused the changes. Their families said they had become different people.

“It was as if the part of their brain where motivation lives had completely disappeared…They hadn’t become less intelligent or less aware of the world. Their old personalities were still inside, but there was a total absence of drive or momentum. Their motivation was completely gone.”

After years of research, they finally discovered the cause, and it points to how we can improve effectiveness and engagement at work.

When your striatum goes dark

The quote above was from Smarter, Faster, Better by Charles Duhigg. A neurologist was describing patients who had blood vessels burst near their striatum, a part of the brain that coordinates a range of cognitive functions, including decision-making and motivation.

Though patients were normal in all other regards, they seemed markedly less interested in things. They would respond to instructions but wouldn’t take any initiative. For example, a man who had been known for his strong work ethic told his doctor, “I just lack spirit…I have no go. I must force myself to wake up in the morning.”

Sure ways to inhibit motivation

Over the past few decades, Duhigg cited a wide range of research that made the connection between decision-making and motivation.

“Motivation is triggered by making choices that demonstrate to ourselves that we are in control. The specific choice we make matters less than the assertion of control. It’s this feeling of self-determination that gets us going…
‘The need for control is a biological imperative,’ a group of Columbia University psychologists wrote in the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences in 2010. When people believe they are in control, they tend to work harder and push themselves more. They are, on average, more confident and overcome setbacks faster…One way to prove to ourselves that we are in control is by making decisions. “Each choice - no matter how small - reinforces the perception of control and self-efficacy., the Columbia researchers wrote.”

When you lose the ability to make decisions, you lose your sense of control and motivation. It happens when certain parts of your brain are damaged. It also happens when workplaces rob you of a sense of autonomy. 

The zombie apocalypse at work

Recently, I was talking with an executive about employee engagement at his firm and I was struck by the language he used. 

“They’re like zombies. You pass them in the lobby, going from meeting to meeting. There’s no eye contact. There’s no spark.”

In some workplaces, for example, control is embedded in a process and even the smallest actions require approval from someone else. Or, possibly worse, there’s ambiguity about who can decide what, and decision-making is negatively reinforced as people ask “Who gave you authority to do that?” Your work day is driven by systemic interruptions and your time largely scheduled by others.

A feeling of learned helplessness spreads throughout the organization. People start to believe their “locus of control” is external instead of internal, It’s “they” and “them” who are responsible for decisions, and never “I” or “me.”

The remedy

The treatment that was effective for some patients with striatal damage can also serve as a remedy for apathy at work: you help people develop the habit of making decisions and feeling in control. Here’s a quote from Carol Dweck, the researcher noted for her work on growth mindsets, who spoke to Duhigg for his book:

“‘Internal locus of control is a learned skill…training is helpful, because if you put people in situations where they can practice feeling in control, where that internal locus of control is reawakened, then people can start building habits that make them feel like they’re in charge of their own lives - and the more they feel that way, the more they really are in control of themselves.”

The choices people make are even more powerful when linked to purpose: “They convince us we’re in control and they endow our actions with larger meaning."

It’s why Working Out Loud circles focus so much on autonomy and purpose, on taking small steps over the course of 12 weeks till you develop a habit that makes you feel in control. You experience earning your own access to people, knowledge, and possibilities.

Helping people develop an internal locus of control is relevant to any organization. In an extreme example, Duhigg cites the Marines general who revamped their basic training. The program that was famous for breaking down recruits and instilling strict discipline evolved “to force trainees to take control of their own choices…teaching a ‘bias toward action’…We’re trying to teach them that you can’t just obey orders.”

As human beings, the feeling of control is “a biological imperative,” and we need to practice developing it. The modern workplace needs us to practice too. Work requires more than people who just sit and await instructions. It needs people to feel more fully alive and motivated, with a bias toward action and meaning.

We don’t have to accept work the way it is. We have choices, and we have to practice making them.

 

 

“There is a mismatch between what science knows and what business does.”

The quote is from Dan Pink’s TED talk, “The puzzle of motivation.” It’s from August, 2009. He later went on to publish an excellent book on the topic, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us.

The more I research how to make work more effective and fulfilling, the more it’s clear that “science knows.” We hit management with study after study after study, and business doesn’t budge.

Science knows that psychological safety is the most important factor for successful teams, yet we work in environments that are designed for internal competition, hierarchical control, and fear.

Science knows we need focus and attention to do meaningful work, yet we work in environments designed for interruptions, where people check their email 36 times an hour

Even intuitively, we know. Parodies of the modern workplace go viral. The mismatch is funny because it’s true. ("A conference call in real-life" has 13 million views.) We shake our heads and laugh, but we're left with a tragic waste of human and organizational potential.

Here’s an extended excerpt from Dan Pink’s clear and compelling talk. What do you think it would take to “repair the mismatch”? Working Out Loud is one kind of change program that can help fix organizations. It will take more. What’s one other thing that might help?

“What worries me, as we stand here in the rubble of the economic collapse, is that too many organizations are making their decisions, their policies about talent and people, based on assumptions that are outdated, unexamined, and rooted more in folklore than in science. And if we really want to get out of this economic mess, if we really want high performance on those definitional tasks of the 21st century, the solution is not to do more of the wrong things, to entice people with a sweeter carrot, or threaten them with a sharper stick. We need a whole new approach.
The good news is that the scientists who've been studying motivation have given us this new approach. It's built much more around intrinsic motivation. Around the desire to do things because they matter, because we like it, they're interesting, or part of something important. And to my mind, that new operating system for our businesses revolves around three elements: autonomy, mastery and purpose. Autonomy: the urge to direct our own lives. Mastery: the desire to get better and better at something that matters. Purpose: the yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves. These are the building blocks of an entirely new operating system for our businesses…
Here is what science knows. One: Those 20th century rewards, those motivators we think are a natural part of business, do work, but only in a surprisingly narrow band of circumstances. Two: Those if-then rewards often destroy creativity. Three: The secret to high performance isn't rewards and punishments, but that unseen intrinsic drive-- the drive to do things for their own sake. The drive to do things cause they matter…
The science confirms what we know in our hearts. So, if we repair this mismatch between science and business, if we bring our motivation, notions of motivation into the 21st century, if we get past this lazy, dangerous, ideology of carrots and sticks, we can strengthen our businesses…maybe, maybe -- we can change the world.”

How I’ll topple a domino that’s 21 feet tall

It’s only been three weeks since my last day working in a big company,  yet my to-do list is already overwhelming. No matter how busy I am, the list only seems to grow.

A simple change change in perspective helped turn stress and panic into focus and progress.

The ONE Thing

A friend recommended a book call The ONE Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results. Just 13 pages in, it grabbed my attention with a metaphor about dominoes, citing a physics journal article that described “how a single domino is capable of bringing down another domino that is actually 50 percent larger.”

A domino that’s 2 inches tall can topple one that’s 3 inches tall, which can topple one that’s 4 1/2 inches, and so on. The 13th domino would be over 21 feet tall, and the 23rd domino would be as tall as the Empire State Building.

“Getting extraordinary results is all about creating a domino effect in your life…Highly successful people know this. So every day, they line up their priorities anew, find the lead domino, and whack away at it till it falls.”

So I started to think, “What’s my next domino?”

What's your ONE thing?

The best staff meeting ever

That question was in my head when I was in last week’s staff meeting. I used to dread such meetings, but now I look forward to them. The “staff meeting” is just my wife and I talking over coffee every Sunday morning, reviewing clients and products, progress and challenges.

As I was going through the list of things I was working on and planned to do, she stopped me and said: “Don’t worry about all of that.” She explained how the work I was doing for one particular customer was the main priority that would lead to more clients and revenue. “Just get this one thing right.”

My wife didn’t need to read a book to see the benefits of extreme prioritization. We agreed on the ONE thing, and that simplified everything. It’s not that the other tasks disappeared, but that each day I know what I have to focus on above all else. That clarity enables me to realize a much higher return on my time and effort.

The next time you’re overwhelmed by your to-do list, whether it’s for your work, family, or health, think of how you’ll answer if someone asks you: “What’s your ONE thing?”

Then do all you can to topple that next domino.

***

p.s. In looking into this different kind of domino effect, I came across this demonstration video by a physics professor. He started with a domino only 5 millimeters high.

[embed]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y97rBdSYbkg[/embed]

The pharma executive who works out loud

Roche logo

Roche logo

The first thing that caught my eye was the title of the article:

“Working Out Loud: A 21st Century Way of Collaborating”

The next thing was the title of the person who wrote it: Global Head of Strategic Innovation at Roche. Her name is Sheila Babnis.

The benefits she sees

I don’t know Sheila, but her description of why she works out loud was one I wish I had written.

“Working out loud is more than just sharing information. I see it as a key to building and strengthening relationships, helping to identify the right connections and having the right conversations that open the door to co-creation.”

Even better were the benefits she listed:

  • better access to information
  • know more about what is happening inside and outside the organization
  • make better decisions
  • solve problems faster

These aren’t just abstract benefits of sharing and connecting. They’re advantages every executive - every employee - could use at work. And she listed one more:

“My team has cut out meeting time by about 50% as a result.”

How did she do it?

Sheila described herself as “a little more than skeptical at the outset”:

“The idea was initially interesting but also a little uncomfortable. How could I possibly find the time, with everything on my plate, to go to yet another online place and openly share my thoughts and what I am working about?”

Two things seemed to make a difference. One was creating a structure for sharing her work.

“I blocked time on my calendar to share what I was working on with my community and also asked for feedback. I slowly found myself sharing work that was not yet complete. I started getting responses, which allowed me to take more risks. Now, the more I WOL (and engage with what others are doing) the more fluent I am becoming.”

The other thing she did was to get help, and she identified the person who helped her in the comments.

“Ayelet Baron worked with my team (and me) to help us make this amazing transition to new ways of working, expand exponentially what we could do and make even more possible.”

You and your firm

It’s great to see that a more open, connected way of working is spreading - and that there are more resources and experts available to help you and your firm.

If people at your firm don’t work out loud yet, consider sharing Sheila’s post, or one of the stories here on workingoutloud.com, or how WOL circles could transform your organization. If you need help, contact Change Agents Worldwide (of which Ayelet is a member) or send me email.

It’s 2015, and we’re overdue for a 21st-century way of working.

The most successful person in Babylon

Babylon mosaicOne of  the biggest barriers to developing yourself and your career - and one of the themes of modern life - is being busy. People simply don’t have the time to do the things they know would be good for them. Recently, I found the cures for this problem in a surprising place - a 71-page, poorly typeset pamphlet published in 1926 called “The Richest Man in Babylon”.

“7 cures for a lean purse”

When one of the smartest people I know recommended the book, I was expecting rich historical fiction or perhaps some stimulating anthropology. Instead, it was about “thrift and financial success, using parables set in Babylon to make each of [the author’s] points.”

Written by George Clason, owner of a map company in Colorado, the parables were distributed by banks and insurance companies to help teach everyday people how to manage their money.

The book opens with “7 cures for a lean purse.” And I was struck by how each one of the cures is also a valuable lesson for managing our most valuable resource - time.

Start thy purse to fattening

The richest man in Babylon’s first and most important lesson was to set aside 10% of your money before spending anything. “A part of all you earn is yours to keep. It should not be less that a tenth no matter how little you earn...Pay yourself first.”

And so with time. Before you schedule your first meeting or take on another responsibility, put aside 10% of your time for investing in yourself.

Control thy expenditures

“What each of us calls our ‘necessary expenses’ will always grow to equal our incomes unless we protest to the contrary.”

Somehow, we all have different jobs and different schedules, and yet no one has time. Every time you say yes to a meeting or a task, you’re saying no to something else that could be much more valuable. Don’t be a profligate spender of time.

Make thy gold multiply & Guard thy treasures from loss

If you’ve saved money, you want to make it work for you so the value compounds. And you want to be careful not to lose it on wasteful ventures.

When it comes to the time you’re investing in yourself, compounding value comes from gradually developing skills. It’s not just another hour writing or presenting or developing a purposeful network, it’s another hour towards greater personal mastery.

Each one of those hours is precious. Don’t fritter them away. The average American spends more than 140 hours a month watching TV on top of 12 hours a month playing video games and 8 hours a month on Facebook. Are these good investments?

Make of thy dwelling a profitable investment

This lesson was about investing in the place where you live, spending your precious money on something important that you need and use every day.

The analog to that is investing in your health. One of the best ways to use the time you've saved is to exercise. It makes you feel better every day while reducing time you might lose to being sick. Importantly, regular exercise is a keystone habit, meaning that it produces other, seemingly unrelated, benefits such as better eating, greater productivity, more patience, and even less financial debt.

Insure a future income & Increase thy ability to earn

The final two lessons are about planning for the future, ensuring you’ll be able to earn more over time and you'll be prepared for when you're older. “As a man perfecteth himself in his calling so doth his ability to earn increase.”

You can buy career insurance, too, by investing your time in developing skills and a network that create more possibilities, that improve the odds:

Career insurance is simply taking control over your visibility – and your access to opportunities – by using social platforms to purposefully shape your online reputation.”

The richest man in Babylon wasn’t the smartest or best-educated man or even the hardest-working. He was the son of a humble merchant. But he applied some simple guidelines in a disciplined way to manage his most precious resource. And that opened up possibilities the other Babylonians dreamed about.

Every one of us has the chance to be the most successful person in Babylon. But to do so, you must “cure your lean purse” and get out of the busy trap. Only then will you have the time to invest in yourself and create the life you want.

The most successful person in Babylon

One of  the biggest barriers to developing yourself and your career - and one of the themes of modern life - is being busy. People simply don’t have the time to do the things they know would be good for them. Recently, I found the cures for this problem in a surprising place - a 71-page, poorly typeset pamphlet published in 1926 called “The Richest Man in Babylon”.

“7 cures for a lean purse”

When one of the smartest people I know recommended the book, I was expecting rich historical fiction or perhaps some stimulating anthropology. Instead, it was about “thrift and financial success, using parables set in Babylon to make each of [the author’s] points.”

Written by George Clason, owner of a map company in Colorado, the parables were distributed by banks and insurance companies to help teach everyday people how to manage their money.

The book opens with “7 cures for a lean purse.” And I was struck by how each one of the cures is also a valuable lesson for managing our most valuable resource - time.

Start thy purse to fattening

The richest man in Babylon’s first and most important lesson was to set aside 10% of your money before spending anything. “A part of all you earn is yours to keep. It should not be less that a tenth no matter how little you earn...Pay yourself first.”

And so with time. Before you schedule your first meeting or take on another responsibility, put aside 10% of your time for investing in yourself.

Control thy expenditures

“What each of us calls our ‘necessary expenses’ will always grow to equal our incomes unless we protest to the contrary.”

Somehow, we all have different jobs and different schedules, and yet no one has time. Every time you say yes to a meeting or a task, you’re saying no to something else that could be much more valuable. Don’t be a profligate spender of time.

Make thy gold multiply & Guard thy treasures from loss

If you’ve saved money, you want to make it work for you so the value compounds. And you want to be careful not to lose it on wasteful ventures.

When it comes to the time you’re investing in yourself, compounding value comes from gradually developing skills. It’s not just another hour writing or presenting or developing a purposeful network, it’s another hour towards greater personal mastery.

Each one of those hours is precious. Don’t fritter them away. The average American spends more than 140 hours a month watching TV on top of 12 hours a month playing video games and 8 hours a month on Facebook. Are these good investments?

Make of thy dwelling a profitable investment

This lesson was about investing in the place where you live, spending your precious money on something important that you need and use every day.

The analog to that is investing in your health. One of the best ways to use the time you've saved is to exercise. It makes you feel better every day while reducing time you might lose to being sick. Importantly, regular exercise is a keystone habit, meaning that it produces other, seemingly unrelated, benefits such as better eating, greater productivity, more patience, and even less financial debt.

Insure a future income & Increase thy ability to earn

The final two lessons are about planning for the future, ensuring you’ll be able to earn more over time and you'll be prepared for when you're older. “As a man perfecteth himself in his calling so doth his ability to earn increase.”

You can buy career insurance, too, by investing your time in developing skills and a network that create more possibilities, that improve the odds:

Career insurance is simply taking control over your visibility – and your access to opportunities – by using social platforms to purposefully shape your online reputation.”

The richest man in Babylon wasn’t the smartest or best-educated man or even the hardest-working. He was the son of a humble merchant. But he applied some simple guidelines in a disciplined way to manage his most precious resource. And that opened up possibilities the other Babylonians dreamed about.

Every one of us has the chance to be the most successful person in Babylon. But to do so, you must “cure your lean purse” and get out of the busy trap. Only then will you have the time to invest in yourself and create the life you want.

What if unproductive work is simply a habit?

Why do we keep doing things at work that we know are wrong? We know we shouldn’t overuse email or have too many meetings; create slides with unreadable bullet points or waste time compiling status reports. We could all make long lists of things we should stop doing that are ineffective or just plain wrong.

So why don’t we change?

One (not-so-great) approach

I used to think that changing how people worked was an education problem. That I just needed to show people how inefficient they were and teach them how to improve things. So our team focused on creating all sorts of materials and tried to reach as many people as we could. Surely, once they saw a better way, people would change.

Ha.

Over the last 20 years, the US government has tried that “better way” approach, trying to educate us about what to eat. But our consumption of the “bad foods” at the top of the pyramid (like refined sugars) has steadily increased anyway.

And we didn’t fare any better at work. We just created our own equivalent of the food pyramid efforts by focusing on education while inboxes and calendars got fatter and fatter.

Viewing work as a set of habits

The problem isn’t that people at work are stupid. It’s that much of what we do - at work and at home - is un-thinking. Much of what we do is a set of habits.

In Charles Duhigg’s “The Power of Habit”, he cites a study that “found more than 40 percent of the actions people performed each day weren’t actual decisions, but habits.” And he goes on to show how habits “shape our lives far more than we realize - they are so strong, in fact, that they cause our brains to cling to them at the exclusion of all else, including common sense.”

Kahneman’s “Thinking Fast and Slow” provides a neurological explanation for this. Simply put, our brain favors doing things that require less cognitive effort.

“...if there are several ways of achieving the same goal, people will eventually gravitate to the least demanding course of action. In the economy of action, effort is a cost, and the acquisition of skill is driven by the balance of benefits and costs. Laziness is built deep into our nature.”

With repetition, effort decreases over time as the brain changes and the activity becomes easier, more automatic, and eventually becomes a habit. Changing that habit - acquiring a new skill or behavior - requires effort which the brain has a natural aversion to.

It’s not just smoking and eating that become hard-to-change habits. It’s our use of email and Powerpoint. It’s the way we schedule and run meetings. It’s “the way things are” at work.

Some surprises

The good news is that we’re starting to better understand how habits form and how to change them. Duhigg quotes a developer of habit reversal training:  “...once you’re aware of how your habit works, once you recognize the cues and rewards, you’re halfway to changing it...It seems like it should be more complex. The truth is, the brain can be reprogrammed. You just have to be deliberate about it.” It’s certainly not simple, but recently there has been a lot of research and new insights into changing habits.

Now, for example, we know why the food pyramid didn’t change how much people eat and we’ve discovered what will: smaller containers.

In “Switch: How to change things when change is hard”, Chip and Dan Heath open with a story of a popcorn study run by the Cornell University Food and Brand Lab. In the study, moviegoers are given, for free, medium and large buckets of popcorn. Both buckets were too big for individuals to finish and the popcorn was stale (“one moviegoer compared it to styrofoam packing peanuts”) so that people weren’t eating it for pleasure. Yet people with the larger buckets ate 53% more popcorn.

They re-ran many variations of the experiment and each time the results were the same: “People eat more when you give them a bigger container. Period.”

Applying this to your firm

It’s far easier to change the size of a popcorn container than to teach people to think differently about food. And so by viewing work as a set of habits, and applying the recent research, we can open up a whole new set of possibilities for improving what we do every day.

Next week, I’ll write about how changing one particular keystone habit at work just might change everything.

What if unproductive work is simply a habit?

Why do we keep doing things at work that we know are wrong? We know we shouldn’t overuse email or have too many meetings; create slides with unreadable bullet points or waste time compiling status reports. We could all make long lists of things we should stop doing that are ineffective or just plain wrong.

So why don’t we change?

One (not-so-great) approach

I used to think that changing how people worked was an education problem. That I just needed to show people how inefficient they were and teach them how to improve things. So our team focused on creating all sorts of materials and tried to reach as many people as we could. Surely, once they saw a better way, people would change.

Ha.

Over the last 20 years, the US government has tried that “better way” approach, trying to educate us about what to eat. But our consumption of the “bad foods” at the top of the pyramid (like refined sugars) has steadily increased anyway.

And we didn’t fare any better at work. We just created our own equivalent of the food pyramid efforts by focusing on education while inboxes and calendars got fatter and fatter.

Viewing work as a set of habits

The problem isn’t that people at work are stupid. It’s that much of what we do - at work and at home - is un-thinking. Much of what we do is a set of habits.

In Charles Duhigg’s “The Power of Habit”, he cites a study that “found more than 40 percent of the actions people performed each day weren’t actual decisions, but habits.” And he goes on to show how habits “shape our lives far more than we realize - they are so strong, in fact, that they cause our brains to cling to them at the exclusion of all else, including common sense.”

Kahneman’s “Thinking Fast and Slow” provides a neurological explanation for this. Simply put, our brain favors doing things that require less cognitive effort.

“...if there are several ways of achieving the same goal, people will eventually gravitate to the least demanding course of action. In the economy of action, effort is a cost, and the acquisition of skill is driven by the balance of benefits and costs. Laziness is built deep into our nature.”

With repetition, effort decreases over time as the brain changes and the activity becomes easier, more automatic, and eventually becomes a habit. Changing that habit - acquiring a new skill or behavior - requires effort which the brain has a natural aversion to.

It’s not just smoking and eating that become hard-to-change habits. It’s our use of email and Powerpoint. It’s the way we schedule and run meetings. It’s “the way things are” at work.

Some surprises

The good news is that we’re starting to better understand how habits form and how to change them. Duhigg quotes a developer of habit reversal training:  “...once you’re aware of how your habit works, once you recognize the cues and rewards, you’re halfway to changing it...It seems like it should be more complex. The truth is, the brain can be reprogrammed. You just have to be deliberate about it.” It’s certainly not simple, but recently there has been a lot of research and new insights into changing habits.

Now, for example, we know why the food pyramid didn’t change how much people eat and we’ve discovered what will: smaller containers.

In “Switch: How to change things when change is hard”, Chip and Dan Heath open with a story of a popcorn study run by the Cornell University Food and Brand Lab. In the study, moviegoers are given, for free, medium and large buckets of popcorn. Both buckets were too big for individuals to finish and the popcorn was stale (“one moviegoer compared it to styrofoam packing peanuts”) so that people weren’t eating it for pleasure. Yet people with the larger buckets ate 53% more popcorn.

They re-ran many variations of the experiment and each time the results were the same: “People eat more when you give them a bigger container. Period.”

Applying this to your firm

It’s far easier to change the size of a popcorn container than to teach people to think differently about food. And so by viewing work as a set of habits, and applying the recent research, we can open up a whole new set of possibilities for improving what we do every day.

Next week, I’ll write about how changing one particular keystone habit at work just might change everything.