Organizational Habituation

There’s a bit of a habit bandwagon on the move at the moment, with a rash of books, software apps, and so forth all helping us to understand the Trigger->Action->Reward structure of habitual behaviours, and how to use that understanding to build our own positive habits. In Verilab’s client work, and beyond that to other SMEs with whom I work, however, I’ve noticed what appears to be, in the group environment and even overall organization, a strong analog of habits in the individual person. I dislike gratuitous creation of neologisms, so I’ve looked for a phrase to denote this phenomenon, but haven’t been able to find one. So I’m naming it now. I’m calling it “Organizational Habituation”.

To explain further, first observe that probably the prime reason for the popularity of the habit books, and many others on personal development in general, is that many of us desire behavioural change but that such change is simply hard. Creating a positive habit such as taking regular exercise is difficult, as is stopping an unwholesome one like eating too much, and the typical solutions to those things — the statement “so just take regular exercise and eat less” — is both correct but next to useless as practical advice[1]. The fundamental reason most overweight people have that problem is not that they eat too much but that some part of them wants to eat too much. It’s as if there are actually two persons inside the one individual body, one saying “resist” and the other dangling images of BBQ ribs in front of the eyes (and nose…). And of course that notion of the divided self is ancient and venerable. A recent treatment of it by Jonathan Haidt, in his “The Happiness Hypothesis”, in which he pictures the two selves as an elephant and rider, is superb. The key point here is that it’s possible for an individual to be intellectually aware of the benefits of performing behaviour B and not performing behaviour C, and yet in practice do precisely the opposite. The age-old battle between our higher and lower brains continues, and the amygdala often wins. Habituation is a method whereby we can make that battle go more often in our (overall) favour.

My observation is that that gap, between knowing what is the right course of action and then actually taking it, seems to occur not just with individuals but at an organizational level too. In software development, for example, certain processes and standards have been developed over the years. Now although some do constitute fairly useless overhead, many represent serious distilled wisdom and are a pretty sure path to better product development. However, even in the case of the latter, it seems it’s not enough for an organization to “know” that behaviour B is correct. For example, it’s not enough to know that certain behaviours in code configuration management — committing changes regularly, working on the appropriate branch — are wise. In our experience in Verilab, and that’s covering many hundreds of large and complex projects across a wide range of clients, project styles, and application domains, many if not most clients already know what is the “right” behaviour, but only a subset do it regularly.  Project planning is another area subject to this organization “divided self” effect. Few if any groups would say that planning your chip development or the highly complex verification sub-project was anything other than essential. But the number who actually plan effectively and, more to the point, persist in effective planning and management discipline throughout the project, are far fewer.

And a telling observation is what happens if these issues are raised with a client. In the same way that if you ask me, “Do you really think eating that extra slice of cheesecake is wise?”, I’ll hang my head, frown, and sigh a pouting begrudging “No” as I put down my fork, cheesecake piece uneaten, so too will the typical chip lead hang his head and sigh if asked about their team’s lack of good practices in their chip flow. And the thing is, he and his team already know about those practices, just as I know that eating too much cheesecake is not good practice. The problem is not that we don’t know. We act “badly” despite knowing otherwise. That’s why we sigh! Over the years of personal fighting with cheesecakes, and watching my clients fighting with complexity in chip design, I’ve concluded that neither of us are bad people. Neither of us are stupid. Our problem is our failure to deal with the fact that both as individuals and, it seems, as teams, we are divided selves. In each case there is a higher brain that knows the right behaviour, but there is also a lower brain that has its own ideas, is stubbornly immune to the higher brain’s reasoning, and is extremely powerful. Whatever the solution is, it’s going to have to deal with that fundamental nature. The higher brain merely yelling at the lower is no more effective than an elephant rider yelling at his ride when the big animal has spotted some nearby food.

So, the answer? You’ll get no such silver bullets, lies, or marketing bullshit from me here. For now, this remains simply one of many pieces of what are effectively field research that my Verilab teams and I do as we help clients across the planet, understanding these challenges common to almost everyone, seeing patterns emerge, and hunting for solutions. We also link back to academia, especially groups working on the psychology of learning and performance, and on programming mastery in particular, to ensure we’re feeding our thought processes from the theoretical and scholarly side too. So no easy answers, but here are three thoughts or pointers.

First, let’s keep in mind exactly what we’re looking for here in building a habit. A key characteristic is that it’s a behaviour where it has become more normal for us to do it than not to. It may even become uncomfortable not to do the habituated action. At the extreme end of habituation — addiction — the discomfort of not obtaining the drug or cigarette can be so intense as to drive the individual into what is clearly self-destructive behaviour. But further down the scale, and more positively perhaps, we have regular runners who report feeling “antsy” if they don’t get out for their morning 3 miles. An example we can almost all relate to is the use of seatbelts in a car (hat tip to my friend Tony Chen for that example). That feeling of unease one gets when driving off having forgotten to fasten one’s car seatbelt is a sign that seatbelting has become habituated for you. And a good thing too! So you will know you are building an organizational habit when your “organization” starts getting grumpy when the action in question doesn’t get done. What is the organizational equivalent of grumpiness in an individual? I’m not sure, but I suspect it has something to do with where even junior people are allowed, expected to and regularly do raise red flags. If when, on a late Friday afternoon, with traffic heavy outside, and everyone anxious to get home, Joe Newbie pipes up “Hang on, we didn’t check in and kick off the weekend regression” and the response from everyone else is (a non-ironic) “Darn! Thank goodness you spotted that Joe!”, then you may be heading in the right direction.

Second, related to the above, Atul Gawande reports on significant developments in this area in hospital medicine. In fact it was Atul’s books that first alerted me to the idea that organizational habituation may be a thing worthy of a name. I strongly recommend first his “The Checklist Manifesto”, and then his broader “Better”. I suggest that order only because despite me saying there are no easy answers, Gawande’s checklisting may come close to that. In particular, checklisting has proven useful to empower nurses and junior medical staff to challenge the authority of hitherto unapproachable surgeons, to the betterment of performance all around. A particularly interesting point he makes is the usefulness of “positive deviance” (PD) when trying to transform groups of people. The phrase, not coined but probably given wider exposure by Gawande, refers to groups of people, within a larger group, who perform in some way at odds with the main group but in a way that is beneficial. An important aspect of such groups in terms of organizational habituation is that they can act as fruitful “seed points” from which to spread the beneficial behaviour. As consultants, we see this at work where it’s clearly much easier to help a small group already embracing a new behaviour to spread their wisdom throughout a client, as opposed to us arriving on parachutes to tell everyone to Stop What You’re Doing And Listen To The Consultants! Even purely within a firm, I suspect a key tactic is for management to figure out ways to be able to hear of such PD behaviour, and to develop at least a tolerance for it. That goes, however, to deeper cultural issues than I can cover here.

Finally, a negative pointer if you will. Almost every business talk I’ve been to about improving some aspect of a firm talks about the “what to do” where the target is one of the common areas of business operations — finance, HR, innovation, and so on. Having been working now for over 25 years, almost half of which as a CEO, I don’t think I’m being immodest to say that the chances of someone telling me something in those areas that I haven’t heard before is not high. Despite that, I remain far from the perfect CEO. In other words, just as with the overweight cheesecake eater, the problem for the beleaguered, battle-worn CEO is not that her firm doesn’t do X, it’s that her firm doesn’t yet “want” to do X. A part of the solution is, I propose, the organizational equivalent of habituation. The solution to getting a firm to do X is rarely, even if wrapped up in cheesy fighter pilot analogies[2], merely to tell them that they should do X.

*** ADDED 2014-04-11 13:50***

Funny how despite hunting around prior to writing something you find nothing, and only afterwards get some leads. Where “organizational habituation” picks up very little on Google, “organizational habits” does. Here’s the transcript of a 2012 podcast interview with Charles Duhigg, author of the well-known The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business.” He speaks about habits at the personal and organizational level. Still no silver bullet answers mind, but at least the problem is being recognized. (Although in that case, why do so many business speakers appear to ignore it?)

[1] I have two simple test for diet books in a store. First, I pick up the book and look at the cover. If it shows a picture of someone so ripped and chiseled they clearly have never been overweight in their life, I return the book to the shelf. Weight control lives in the mind, not in the body, and unless a person has fought and won their own mind battles I very much doubt they understand and can help my problem. If it passes that first test, I then split the book around 3/4 of the way to the end and open it. If I find recipes, I return the book to the shelf. My thinking — backed now by experience — is that the recipes are designed to be in the range of 1250 to 1750 calories per day, being the typical range people need to consume to lose weight. In other words, no matter what the front 75% of the book has said, in fact it amounts overall to yet another “all you have to do is consume fewer calories than you emit”, and that phrase fails in its first “all you have to do”. There is nothing “all“, “merely” or “simply” about behaviour change.
[2] That is a link. It is absolutely not a recommendation.

2 comments on “Organizational Habituation

  1. bmeacham says:

    > SMEs

    Subject matter experts? Small and medium enterprises?

    > We act “badly” despite knowing otherwise.

    Aristotle calls this _akrasia_, loosely translated as “weakness of will,” more accurately “lacking command” (over oneself). It’s been an ongoing problem of interest ever since Socrates. Amelie Rorty has a good treatment in “Where does the akratic break take place?” in Australasian Journal of Philosophy. Volume 58, Issue 4, 1980, and reprinted in _Mind in Action: Essays in the Philosophy of Mind_, Boston: Beacon Presss, 1988.

    • Tommy says:

      SME: Small and Medium Enterprise. Sorry, maybe more of a UK thing than a US one.

      Akrasia: Yes, absolutely. I think it lies at the heart of the problem (although I’ve considered it more as an individual thing than as one affecting the organization, except in a sum-of-the-parts way). But I think it is widely overlooked, or at least smothered by quick fix “all you have to do” style bandwagons such as “Find your passion!”, or “10,000 hours of deliberate practice”.

      On the latter of those bandwagons; somewhere in the popularization, by the likes of Malcolm Gladwell, of the work of the likes of K. Anders Ericsson, neither of whom I blame for the excesses, on how mastery is achieved, the credible notion that innate talent is relatively unimportant above a certain fairly modest level (exactly how modest depending on the field of endeavour), seems to have morphed into the far less credible notion that there is *nothing* innate that is important. Instead, we’re told (more by the copycats than the originators) that “all you have to do” is put in a lot of the right kind of effort and world-class ability lies within our reach. But it’s clear that while many claim to want to, only a few do achieve the heights of mastery. So if the key to success is “nothing but” accumulating the right amount of the right kind of effort, then clearly not everyone’s doing that, and for me that demands an explanation. And glib responses like “well they obviously don’t really want it” expose exactly the kind of conundrum that thinking about akratic action has been trying to resolve. What does it mean when someone says they want something but doesn’t act like it? What does it mean if they admit they don’t want it, but claim to *want* to want it (is that a meta-want)? Are they kidding themselves? Can they learn *not* to kid themselves? Regardless, the point is that if we, as employers, want to direct our search for mastery, we might as well maximize our chances by not pointing ourselves down blind “all you have to do” alleys. And beyond the workplace: if we, as individuals, want to maximize our chances in the far greater search for eudaimonia and beyond, then it surely behooves us to either look in the right place, or at very least come to terms with the fact that maybe we’re not as iron-willed as a Navy SEAL, and so should take a different tack.

      I touched on some of this in a subsequent post:

      And thanks for the reference; I’ll look out for it. The bookshelves in Verilab’s Austin office contain a range of titles exploring excellence in our chosen engineering field. However, those practical and immediately applicable works are accompanied by several pushing into the deeper and more foundational aspects of the pursuit of excellence. Several by said K. Anders Ericsson are in that group, but another is Volume 49 of Studies in Philosophy and the History of Philosophy, entitled “Weakness of Will From Plato To The Present”, edited by Tobias Hoffman. It is one of my personal goals as a CEO, to get my teams reading and applying Aristotle, Plotinus, and Montaigne, or die trying. 🙂

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