COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | STAN SEWITCH

Just try to make a habit of it

A business leader came to me recently and asked if I could run a workshop on how to acquire the ability to establish and follow disciplined processes and procedures, for a group that is charged with innovation. It’s a question I’ve heard before, and a challenge I’ve had to try to figure out in my own career. The essential dilemma is that creativity and innovation need promotion of variance in behavior, while implementation actions require invariance of behavior.

The people who do well in the ambiguous, exciting and chaotic environment conducive to true brainstorming and the generation of novel ideas do not typically thrive in functional assignments that require consistent, methodical processes followed religiously. And vice versa. There are indeed those who can do both, and do them in the same workday, but they are a rare sliver of the population. It’s not wise to build a business model or functional structure around the assumption that such disciplined, artistic schizophrenics are in good supply.

If the organization is lucky enough to have one or two individuals who can be both creative and disciplined in execution, that is wonderful. Sometimes, businesses and even whole industries can be led by such people, for a time. Then the scale of the enterprise or the industry eclipses the abilities of even a Leonardo da Vinci or Benjamin Franklin, two good examples of the combination required. Again, it’s not a wise bet to assume one’s organization can find and retain someone like Leo or Ben, let alone several of them.

The best solution is to segregate the idea-generation function from the process management function, so that creative geniuses are free to roam and come up with the business-changing notions, while those who are productive geniuses can ensure that a result is actually achieved to the benefit of all. But separation of functions is not always possible or practical. Funding an internal “think tank” is pretty expensive. And while most companies do need truly innovative ideas, they don’t need them every day.

The next approach is to attempt to improve the ability of creative people to follow disciplined processes. There are a few steps to do this, consistent with the principles of human behavior related to habit formation, none of them easy.

First, there must be a compelling internal motivation for an individual to go through the hard work of acquiring a new habit or giving up an old one. All habits are built over time from reinforcement, either to achieve a reward or avoid a consequence. It took me six months to stop my habit of leaving the water running while I brushed my teeth. The strong internal motivation came from realizing how wasteful it was. It still took six months to form the habit. My wife, Cheri, kissing my cheek every time for accomplishing the task helped tremendously, however.

External motivators, like fear of punishment for failure to acquire the habit or a bonus if accomplished, are not sufficient to create enduring behavioral change. The person has to really want to do the hard work in habit formation for a reason that they carry inside of them. So you have to find out if the person does indeed have the internal drive to do so. You have to ask, “Why are you committed to learning and following this procedure?” if a procedure is the habit concerned. You can also ask, “How will you go about ensuring that you do?” These are questions that point out the individual’s accountability and that it is their choice.

If someone is not really committed, you will find out with these questions, and then you can address their reasons for resistance. Maybe it’s a dumb procedure. Maybe they’re afraid of not being able to perform the new method. Maybe they’re experiencing fatigue of change. Whatever the reason, you need to find out and then you have a chance of addressing it so that the person can actually have internal motivation to form the habits.

Assuming the person has the requisite ability to adopt the habit, the next step is the leader’s accountability. The leader has to demonstrate by example they can follow the same procedure or acquire the new habit. We remember when our parents may have said, “Do as I say, not as I do.” That didn’t fly, did it? Therefore, to ensure that staff members acquire the necessary habits, their leaders have to do it first and do it well.

The leader also must monitor progress and provide immediate feedback when the behavior is done right, and when it isn’t. In the absence of timely feedback, it is hard to establish the habit. This feedback cannot be punitive in nature, but factual and as soon after the behavior is observed as possible. In operant conditioning terms, the temporal proximity (how soon) of the stimulus (feedback) after the behavior is observed is directly proportional to the valence (reinforcing effectiveness) of the stimulus (feedback).

Finally, it takes time and repetition to form a habit. Some habits can take years to acquire and embed; others may only take a few days. It depends on internal motivation, the nature of the behavioral challenge and complexity, the effective application of reinforcement, and the example that leaders establish.


Sewitch is an entrepreneur and business psychologist. He serves as the vice president of global organization development for WD-40 Company. Sewitch can be reached at sewitch1@cox.net.

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