“Habits – even once they are rooted in our minds – aren’t destiny. We can choose our habits, once we know how.” – Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit

It’s a hotly debated number, but despite an urgent need for organizations to embrace and thrive in change, studies show that as many as 70% of all change initiatives fail. In a VUCA business landscape, organizations must be agile in change, or risk losing market share.

What many organizational change initiatives fail to account for is the importance of individual behavior change. Change must be embedded in day-to-day actions, not just of senior leadership and managers, but by “frontline” employees as well. However, change initiatives are often implemented from the top of the org chart—failing to include or create buy-in from the individuals who will ultimately be responsible for driving the change.

To overcome these shifts, unlocking behavior change at the level of the individual will be essential. A CEO can repeat the new company values at the beginning of every meeting, finish every email with them written in their signature, and hang them on banners in every meeting room, but unless individuals within the organization are empowered and encouraged to enact the values in their daily work, nothing will change.  

For organizations that are seeking changed behavior, tapping into the power of habits is an effective strategy for ensuring that change sticks. Furthermore, for change to cascade throughout an organization, leaders have to be responsible for communicating desired behaviors to their direct reports, and modelling behaviors themselves.

A recent article in HBR summarizes this nicely: “While strategic plans identify what your organization should do differently, very few provide a roadmap for how to build the skills, knowledge, and processes needed to carry out and sustain the critical changes. But without building these capabilities, it’s very difficult to achieve the results you want.”

Tackling strategic change by either ignoring or being overly prescriptive about individual capabilities is bound to be frustrating for everyone. Leaders who are tasked with driving the change will be frustrated by poor results, and frontline individuals will either be annoyed that they’re left to figure it out for themselves, or resentful about being micro-managed.

We designed the Actionable Platform to help leaders create meaningful change that starts at an individual level. By harnessing the power of habits, and giving individuals tools to support everyday behavior change, we help organizations create the sustained behavior shifts they need to adapt and thrive in a VUCA landscape, and to execute the strategic priorities of the organization.

Focus on Habits, Not Goals

Research suggests that more results follow when we focus on habits instead of goals. Goals can introduce a scarcity mindset—you have to struggle for a certain amount of time, but there is an end in sight. And once you’ve achieved your goal, you are justified in going back to your old habit.

Goals are a one-time bargain. They are the spending mindset. “I will spend X amount of energy to receive Y reward.” Habits are an investing mindset. Habits require one to invest one’s efforts for a little while and then take the rewards of that effort and re-invest them in a greater effort to form even better habits.” – Mark Manson

Focusing on developing habits also creates a series of small wins, building confidence while building capability.

Understand How Habit Change Works

BJ Fogg created the Fogg Behavior Model (FBM) as a framework for understanding what conditions are required for effective change.

Fogg’s model asserts that there are 3 components that make up behavior: “In brief, the model asserts that for a target behavior to happen, a person must have sufficient motivation, sufficient ability, and an effective trigger. All three factors must be present at the same instant for the behavior to occur.”

For organizations that want their employees to embrace certain target behaviors, creating motivation and ability will be essential. Explaining why the change is important, what the benefits will be, and what alternatives were considered, will help to build motivation. Ability is also critical—you won’t get far with a new behavior if your team isn’t trained on a required tool, or is tasked with a project wildly out of line with their expertise. Providing the right mix of tools, hands on training, and peer support will be crucial for enabling behavior change.

Find the Right Habits

To identify the specific behaviors you’d like to change, look to where you’re struggling as an organization. What does your training focus on? Did you recently bring in a speaker or facilitator to help motivate the team? What did they speak about?

Look to the strategic direction of the organization. What are the gaps between the yearly or quarterly plan, and the behaviors of individuals on the team?

For high impact results, look for high impact habits. Charles Duhigg argues that “some habits… matter more than others in re-making businesses and lives. These are “keystone habits,” and they can influence how people work, eat, play, live, spend, and communicate. Keystone habits start a process that, over time, transforms everything.” (The Power of Habit, 100). Keystone habits are those that focus on “small wins”—which in turn set you up for a series of correlating small wins that create a cascade effect of results.

Embed Habit Change Into Daily Work

This is our bread and butter, the core of what Actionable’s Conversation Platform creates, and we are hugely passionate about habits and behavior change. We know that embedding new behaviors into daily work is the key to creating lasting habits.

When you want to change a habit, your brain has to work harder and use more energy, which can make you physically uncomfortable. Daily practice lessens this discomfort over time, and reinforces the new habit loop. 

We crave the reward that results when you complete the habit routine, and it’s disappointing not to have that craving fulfilled. Without paying proper attention to the reward element of the habit, it’s easy to slip back into old routines that give us the satisfaction we crave.

Habits “create neurological cravings. Most of the time, these cravings emerge so gradually that we’re not really aware they exist, so we’re often blind to their influence. But as we associate cues with certain rewards, a subconscious craving emerges in our brains that starts the habit loop spinning” (Duhigg, The Power of Habit, 48). When you’re working to change an existing habit (or develop a new one), you’ll know that you’ve succeeded when you start to crave the reward of the new behavior. 

Make Habit Change Sticky

Research suggests that habit formation can take anywhere from 18 to 254 days, with an average of about 66 days. The large variation in timelines suggests that there’s a lot more nuance and complexity to forming habits than just “do it for a certain number of days.” Individuals need sufficient motivation and ability, well-timed triggers, and to identify the rewards that their habits provide in order to design routines that stick.

For our Platform, we chose a timeline of 30 days for each individual commitment to behavior change. 30 days of sustained effort may not be enough for everyone to form a lifelong habit, but by adding in peer and manager support, and a reflection process, we help to build the foundations of long term change.

Reaching out to others to help you stay accountable as you form your new habit (or change an existing habit), can dramatically increase your chances of success.

Data from the Actionable Platform bears this out—users who select an accountability buddy to support them in their commitment check in more than twice as often than those who don’t ask for support.

We’ve also seen the power of reflection and planning, something we’ve seen people do with journal writing through their 30 day habit change efforts, and a close the loop reflection process at the end.

* * * * * * *

If you want new results, you need new behaviors. This is as true for organizations as it is for individuals. Just as an individual can’t improve their health without making changes to the way they treat their body, an organization can’t improve results or execute a strategic plan without changing their behaviors. In fact, it’s likely more complicated for organizations to enact meaningful change, as they have to inspire changed behavior in a network of individuals, who all have varying levels of motivation and ability.

Here are some steps you can take today to harness the power of habits and create meaningful change in your organization:

  • Focus on habits instead of goals, and celebrate the small wins as they accumulate.
  • Identify high value or “keystone” habits, and make those a priority.
  • Identify individually relevant rewards for performing new behaviors, and amplify those rewards while building a new habit.
  • Work to increase both motivation and ability for individuals tasked with implementing change.
  • Embed change in daily work activities by supplying an effective trigger.
  • Build social support and accountability into your change initiatives.

Thriving in a VUCA world requires a mindset shift for organizations. Change can no longer be implemented from the top-down—frontline employees, middle managers, and senior leadership all need the tools to shift their behaviors in a meaningful way.

Our habits can have a profound effect on our lives—up to 45% of our actions each day are habitual. Investing in good habits can feel difficult, yet the potential return on investment makes the temporary discomfort and effort worth it.