A framework for changing habits at work

You went to a good school. You work in a big company. You’re making much more than the average American family.

And yet, you’re no better than Lucy and Ethel in the chocolate factory.  The emails and meeting requests keep coming in and you can’t keep up with the flow. You’re stressed and feel you never get a chance to do the kind of great work you’re capable of.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

Most of what we do at work is a set of un-thinking habits. If we can inspire and train ourselves to re-examine a particular keystone habit – how we spend our time at work – then positive changes will ripple throughout the firm.

But how would you get everyone to change?

The “Switch” framework

For individuals, there are many good books on changing habits like smoking or over-eating. But for broader-based change, including change at work, the most comprehensive and useful framework I’ve found is in “Switch”, a book by Chip and Dan Heath.

Throughout the book, change is described as trying to get an elephant moving in a new direction. There’s the elephant, powerful and resistant to change (our emotional self). There’s the rider trying to steer the elephant (our rational self). And there’s the path to new behaviors (the environment surrounding us).

Each part of the framework is described with illustrative stories, examples, and research. (All italicized phrases below are framework headings from the book.) Here’s how to apply that framework to a specific campaign, called “One hour a day”, that’s about changing how we spend our time at work.

“Motivate the Elephant” – Make it personal

It requires a lot of effort to change a habit. To motivate the elephant, the Switch framework focuses on making people care about the change and on making them confident they can achieve it.

To help people find the feeling about “One hour a day”, you need to explicitly tie the campaign to their personal benefit. Rather than talk about ROE or higher productivity (though increases in both will be side-effects), focus on giving individuals more time for themselves: “Eliminate the least valuable 10% of your job and invest that time in yourself. Time to do more great work and expand your career. To eat a proper lunch with a colleague and further develop a relationship. To read and learn. To exercise and be healthier.”

Shrinking the change focuses on enabling small wins that people can build on. For example, finding even one hour a week – eliminating the need for just one meeting – can give people a taste of what success will feel like. That builds confidence.

Growing your people means helping them further believe they’re capable of changing their work habits. That means celebrating the stories of individuals at all levels who’ve found their one hour a day. And it means, ultimately, creating an identity for your organization so they can each view their days differently and make better decisions: “We’re not the kind of people who waste time! We deserve better!”

“Direct the Rider” – Make it clear

If the elephant needs motivation to keep it moving, the rider needs direction. That means clarity on what to do and good reasons for doing it.

Some modern ways of working are unambiguously better than what most people do. For example, replacing certain status meetings with online versions. Or storing documents online where others can readily find, use, and build on them. For these basics, you’ll need to script the critical moves so everyone knows exactly what they can do to get started.

You can’t possibly know all the ways that people can better manage their time. So the Switch framework tells you to follow the bright spots. These are people who are already exhibiting the behaviors you want – like working out loud – so you can discover how they’re doing it and then share what they’re doing with the rest of the organization.

As you help people get going, you’ll need to point to the destination to keep reminding them of where they’re headed. “We’re eliminating the least productive 10% of what we do so we can all invest that time in ourselves.”

For a large firm, that means converting the least valuable work into 10,000 person years (over 20 million hours) that you can use in better, richer ways.. That’s enough to build 3 Empire State Buildings. All from the least valuable work we do. Every year.

“Shape the Path” – Make it easy

The last third of the Switch framework focuses on making it easier for people to change.

For example, you’ll need to tweak the environment to provide cues and triggers for people. That could include signs and a calculator in every conference room: “How much does this meeting cost?” And reminders of good practices right in your email and calendar software before you hit the “Send” button. And simple analytics that track the hours you’ve saved and make you mindful of your progress.

Just as we try to eliminate bad habits at work, we want to build habits out of the new, positive behaviors. You do that by making elements of the changes a part of everyday routines. Encourage everyone to use the “meeting checklist” to see if a meeting is really warranted before sending an invitation. Establish a policy of stand-up meetings for simple updates. Disable reply-all in email. With repeated use, these new behaviors just become “the way things are done around here.”

Finally, you rally the herd. This is something that entire books are written about and where social platforms can really make a difference. You connect everyone trying to find “One hour a day”.  You build communities so people can share what they know and continue to make advances.

It’s about time

What are we waiting for? In the banking industry alone, for example, stock prices languish. (Many firms trade well below book value, meaning their parts are worth more than the whole). Their credit ratings are approaching junk status. And yet banks continue to spend and waste as ever before.

What else do we need before we feel we have to change? Changing a keystone habit at work – “One hour a day” – can transform big companies and we should start now.

The commercial and human costs are higher than ever. We can’t afford to waste more time.

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About John Stepper

Driving adoption of collaboration and social media platforms at Deutsche Bank. (Opinions here are my own.)
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5 Responses to A framework for changing habits at work

  1. elginkevin says:

    Sounds great. But, let’s start at the top with this one, yeah? It’s hard to pull something like this off when I’m required to bill every minute of every day to a project. And the person assigning the projects is the person who tells me I need to bill every minute of every day to one of them. So, where do I bill the time required for all the communication about something like this? My boss would tell me I need to do it in my own time, which means I have no motivation to do it. I am not so lucky as to have every had budget time for ‘innovation’. We actually started an innovation group in my department, and were told to cut it out. So, we’re back to the signals I guess. First the change the signals, and then the rest will follow.

    • On the basis of a single test: a) it warns you when sending an email without an attachment if you mentioned an attachment or words you choose and b) it greys out Reply All or Forward when you set these to be disabled when composing (however the recipient can override these settings if they really try).

  2. Pingback: “Building a purposeful social network” – a course update | johnstepper

  3. Pingback: Changing habits: a personal experiment | johnstepper

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