Although commonly overlooked, taking positive action to ensure changes progress from being ‘new’ to being ‘normal’ is critical to achieving sustainable change. Without this, all the time and resource invested in making a change is likely to be wasted.
The power of human habit is not to be underestimated here – it’s the invisible force that will have people reverting back to old processes and behaviours, and for many of us we don’t even know we’re doing it, because habits are planted so deep in our minds.
In his book The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg describes how habits are formed very elegantly via The Habit Loop.
For example, if you’ve ever moved to live in a different place, maybe you’ve set off on your journey home one day, only to find yourself heading towards your old place without realising it? You were responding to a cue (time to go home) and following a routine (your old journey home) because it was what you’d learned will get you a reward (being at home and all the things that means to you).
The experience of going toward the wrong place was not what you expected, so over time the cue remains the same but the routine in this habit loop is replaced by the journey to your new home – ensuring you keep getting the reward you expect, which is to gain all the benefits of being be at home.
Of course this hidden power of habit can be a help or a hindrance and, because it’s automatic, that can also make it hard for people to change.
Fear not though – it takes time, but there are ways to help make change stick! Consider how, during the pandemic, the wearing of masks has become normal in shops and other indoor places. Most of us don’t even think about it any more.
Since this is all about people and habits it can seem daunting, but the underlying principle is quite simple – make sure it feels better to follow the new ways than the old, and encourage and reward repetition of the new ways until they become new habits.
There are several practical, positive things that will help to make ‘new’ feel better:
- Ensuring people have the right knowledge and skills
- Making sure things just work – and teething issues are solved quickly
- Defining and role-modelling the new behaviours expected (not just the processes & systems)
- Learning from past change experience – and involving everyone in that learning
- Encouraging & empowering the team to continuously improve
- Listening and acting on feedback
- Communicating progress
- Celebrating successes – however big or small
As well as all this focus on the new ways of doing things, it’s important to take focus away from the old processes, behaviours and systems, and this means removing or reducing the ability to do things the way they used to be done by breaking the old habit loops.
Things like switching off old systems, changing physical and virtual workspaces, and altering reward and recognition methods will all help people to break their old habits and embed new ones.
Give embedding change the attention it deserves – or we could risk seeing all our hard work undone. And remember that every human is hard-wired for habits, which can make it hard for people to change – so act with empathy and kindness, mixed with all your energy and enthusiasm to get things changed!