Develop keystone habits to champion change

The autumn of 2014 saw a rather surprising development. One of the three national holidays was being converted into the beginning of a new movement. The incumbent Prime Minister had decided that the country needed to be clean. For a leader to see dire poverty, stunted growth, increasing communal conflicts, an inability to compete at a global scale, and widening economic gaps and say, “What we need most is for the country to be a little cleaner”, was a disappointing assessment at best. That however would not only be a wrong assessment, but it would also probably be the worst one anyone could make. The Swachh Bharat Abhiyan got an entire nation together, cultivated a feeling of ownership towards the country, brotherhood towards each other, and united the diverse people of India, after a very long time, around an overarching goal. The movement also started a nationwide change in the habit of littering, which for some people resulted in reducing their usage of disposable plastics and caused food vendors to raise their hygiene standards. Above all, it set the political stage for the incumbent to gather support for his upcoming endeavors, no matter however controversial they may be. The movement showed that the country could change, not through some miracle but, through the efforts of everyday men and women coming together.   

 This pattern where an outsider walks into the machinery and overhauls the whole system through a minuscule change isn’t a new approach. Throughout history, the people who have the ability to orchestrate the “right” type of change, have been able to produce enormous results from small, but focused inputs. These changes drive individuals and groups from stability to prosperity. Such a change is required in the corporate world today. While companies are able to survive global competition, only a few of these manage to thrive in spite of it. In a symphony of pressure and pleasure, an intricate structure is put into place to take care of employees. This system, however, has its efficiency devoted to the maintenance of employees and thereby the output of the company. How about putting in place a simpler alternative that has greater efficiency and targets the growth of employees and output? What we are looking for are called “keystone habits” by behavioral scientists: A small shift that causes a sea change. These habits are different from other habits as they’re intricately linked to the very core of a person or an organization. Changing them, therefore, would require systematically weeding everything else that is wrong in the system.   

  Initiate the right small change to trigger a bigger change 

To realize that there is a need to change is the easy thing to do; how to change and where exactly the change would be most effective are the hard bits. We are looking to change a single habit that triggers a domino effect to positively change other maladjusted areas too. At an organizational level though, these habits translate into policies and programs. How do you change these policies and programs which are at the core of an organization? One easy way to answer this question is to suggest the complete overhauling of the system. An organization is anchored through its processes and policies and if these very anchors are faulty, the solution is to scrap them and start over. This, however, is not practical. What must also be understood at the same time is that the problem is indeed deep-rooted.  Every organization has its distinct peculiarities and the course of change will depend on these very peculiarities. The path has to be tailored to the needs of the employees and its feasibility for the organization. So how do you look for the perfect keystone habits for your company? 

Firstly, these changes can be small shifts to already existing routines. This brings us to Starbucks. Workers at the customer end of Starbucks are given a set of instructions on how to deal with difficult people. This simple set of protocols make the employees seem exceedingly calm even in the most disturbing situation. Starbucks cultivated willpower as a habit, just by defining their already existing processes more minutely. Secondly, these changes should be a core routine in the depths of the organization. This is best explained through the example of Alcoa, a steel manufacturing giant. The company was incurring losses and this led the management to call for a change in the leadership. The new CEO immediately embarked upon the mission to make Alcoa the safest steel manufacturer. Seemingly unrelated to the loss being incurred, changes in the safety measures caused the profit margins to peak in a year. Better safety meant using more efficient machinery, having extensive communication across the hierarchy, in case there was an accident, and introducing safer, modern procedures for the employees to follow. This in turn caused stupendous growth within the company.  

  Create small wins to garner support 

Finally, one thing is clear, an organization is its people. Any change that is being incorporated needs the buy-in and support of the employees. So, how do you go about cultivating something healthy, as a core routine for the workforce?  This “how” is best answered with a “why”: Why should the employees be interested in indulging in the change. This mandates that the change should lead all its targets (employees) to experience a “small win”. This can mean anything from raising the hygiene standards to incorporating better healthcare coverage. In an interview with The Fiscal Times, Charles Duhigg (author of ‘The Power of Habit’) shared a routine his friend heading a start-up followed. “Every Thursday night he began buying pizza for the team. It’s now part of their culture, and it leads to much bigger wins. Every Thursday he tells them, “Guys, it’s been a long week. Tomorrow’s Friday. So, go out and make the killer sale tomorrow. And thanks.”. While not every week was successful in terms of profits, the employees worked like they were a part of a successful company until it eventually became true.  

The sooner an organization develops keystone habits, the sooner it’ll be able to succeed. These routines are in an organization’s grassroots. Inculcating these habits from the very beginning orients all the resources in the direction of productivity. A committed task force can do wonders in no time. The sooner their potential is realized the better it is for the organization.

PC: jarmoluk, pixabay / CCO

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