“My bad habits lead to … ” good habits?

Maybe I’ve been listening to Ed Sheeran too often in the last few months. Maybe habits interest me because they seem to be the opposite of change. Maybe it’s a good topic to resume my habit of blog writing. Or maybe it’s just all together….

One thing in particular that makes me curious is how findings about habits and change in individuals can be applied to organisations.

Habits are actually an “energy saving mode” of the brain, i.e. automatic reactions to certain impulses without me having to consciously think about them. In this way, I can save my decision-making energy – of which I do not have much as a human being – for those situations that are new or unclear. Habits are thus basically positive.

It becomes critical when the well-rehearsed reactions are no longer the appropriate ones, or when I have become accustomed to something that is not good for me.


But how can I change habits, build new ones, break old ones? I would like to take up the hypothesis of Wendy Wood, professor at USC. She says in essence (among many other thoughts I’m leaving out here) that it comes down to the design of your environment: design your environment in such a way that it supports the desired behaviour, or design it in such a way that it makes the undesired behaviour more difficult. Don’t rely on willpower – you’ll lose the battle.

So supposedly disciplined people don’t have more willpower, but are smarter at shaping their environment.


What does this mean for organisations? A great topic for long discussions and here, as always, just a few thoughts.

  • Organisations have their habits just like people, mostly implicit, sometimes explicit automatic reactions in certain situations like dealing with deadlines or punctuality, decision making in groups, dealing with criticism, project routines, etc.
  • If I want to change organisations, I have to change habits. Otherwise, it will be very tedious and not sustainable.
  • If I want to change habits, I have to know them first. Could you name the essential habits of your organisation?
  • Describing new, desired habits is probably easier. But how do you create the “environment” to bring them about? Big context changes help to break away from old habits – when everything is new, it is hard to hold on to the old. At the same time, to form the right new habits, it takes a lot of small elements that support the new behaviour. This reminds me of a “user journey”: a detailed description of the new routine, then collecting elements that can lead to the old habits, and collecting elements that can support the new habit. Examples could be behaviour of supervisors or changes in the seating structure.


What do you notice when you look at your organisation with the idea of “habits”? How might you transfer your experience of changing personal habits to your organisation? What could be crucial “context factors” in your organisation? Does this view make change processes harder or easier for you?