Organisational Habits: What’s Good for the Goose…

“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea” — Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

I recently attended a special strategic event of my NGO, where a tier of the upper management attempted to make a significant impact on its future services.
Events like this are an insight into the attitudes emblematic to upper managements, and into the kind of outcomes that naturally follow from classical goal-setting events.
Oh, and it’s a great view into the Dilbert-like problems so emblematic to changing the course of a whole organisation 🙂

 - Dilbert by Scott Adams
I have written in the past (and will write more extensively soon) about the impact that habits can have on a certain area or set of goals in your life. The effect of performing any particular habit may seem minor; but when applied consistently, constant and incremental gains are the way to improve in almost any area.

The same is true for organisations -though even less appreciated.
While it is more subtle to notice, a group of people in a team or organisation will start adopting certain behavioural patterns that operate almost exactly as habits: happening with minimal effort (almost unconscious) but accumulating over time. Most of these are not conscious decisions and simply go by unnoticed: coffee breaks, watercooler gossip, punching out as soon as the shift ends.
During the last year I’ve become very interested in how to adopt intelligent organisational habits, as I believe they unlock just as much potential as they do for individuals.

The NGO I was in, often had problems innovating its services. From the perspective of upper management, there are two distinct ways to tackle this problem (without going into structural details):
Strategy 1: Invest time into finding specific ways to innovate, and push these outcomes down to invididual teams and groups.
Strategy 2: Invest time into creating an organisational mindset geared towards innovation, and push this mindset down to individual teams.

For some reason, option 1 comes far more natural to people; perhaps because drawing up a master-plan and using this to convince “the troops”, evokes all kinds of majestic imagery, from Columbus to the Justice League. And flatters quite some egos.
Yet despite all this allure, option 2 is far more effective.
Here’s why:

  1. Longterm effectsAn organisational habits approach focuses energy on improving the mechanisms that generate changes automatically, rather than pushing through singular changes.Imagine you were a diet coach and had just 2 hours to make an impact on someone’s life. Would you spend 2 hours shopping and cooking their food, or spend it teaching them the principles of healthy eating and making them excited about it?
    Obviously you should pick the latter, as it will keep paying dividends after you walk out the door -whereas the self-cooked meals will have no impact once the client eats them and is back to square 1.

    This is the same reason why we say “Teach a man to fish, he’ll eat for a lifetime”, why long term incremental income beats cash injections over the short term, and why the results of habits tend to beat those of sporadic efforts.
    Organisations are not fundamentally different.

  2. AdaptabilitySpoon-feeding someone the right changes might get them temporarily on track, but they won’t be any more prepared for analysing or solvingproblems in the future.
    This applies even more in our modern world. Societal and technological shifts are happening increasingly rapid, and this makes any particular goal into a rapidly moving target.By the time you manage to compose a strategic document and get the organisation on board, it might be already outdated; the moving target will have moved on.
    Instead strategy 2 will focus on empowering individual teams and teach them to spot and aim for the moving targets continuously.
  3. OwnershipTeams feel and perform better when they are tackling their own problems and invested in finding solutions. This sort of self-reliance correlates with maturity, confidence, continuous development, capacity-building and all that other good stuff.
    Pushing a rigid set of guidelines down on a team… does the exact opposite.

 - Dilbert by Scott AdamsGranted, it can be hard to distinguish which is which.

Not surprisingly, I’ve found this idea to be much harder to convince people of. Even while writing the above advantages, I’m painfully aware that the imagined process is rather abstract and utopic.
In comparison, the introduction of a KPI or a new top-down directive certainly seems far more business-like and realistic, whereas considering how to “empower the innovation culture within the organisation” seems to come straight from a brainstorm on Woodstock 1969. Nevertheless I believe this is the more rational course: no matter how brilliant and concrete your KPI or directive is, it won’t achieve a lasting impact until it embeds itself in normal operating procedures -and becomes just one of the things you do.

You only have a certain amount of time to spend on fundamentally improving an organisation, as most wheels will always turn automatically. I recently found a beautiful analogy  :
“Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them. Operations of thought are like cavalry charges in a battle — they are strictly limited in number, they require fresh horses, and must only be made at decisive moments.” — Alfred North Whitehead

The point of this quote is very much in line with the philosophy behind organisational habits. People are busy. Departments are overloaded. It is not realistic to expect that upper management is able to stop and think about every decision, work out the details of how it fits in the new organisational strategy, and then push these details down to various teams. And it’s not realistic to think that individual teams will do so either.
In fact this i not just unrealistic from a commitment and motivation point of view; it’s literally impossible from a time- and attentional resources point of view.
In times of stress and overload, employees will fall back on the tried and tested habits and culture that permeate the organisation. If these are ineffective -which seems likely if you’re having big problems- the power of bad organisational habits will slowly and unconsciously guide you back to square 1.

As an organisation’s leadership, you must seek to improve the unconscious habits that reside within it.
And if you don’t? Well, organisational habits will still be there.
They’ll just be ones you didn’t put thought into.


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