Few argue that culture is a key factor in the execution of strategy. Culture has many definitions, and one way to understand it is that it is a set of thousands of individual habitual responses. They are also collective, and that’s what we see in culture. My commonsense approach is this: By changing individual habits and behaviors, we can nudge new collective behaviors; that is, culture.
One of the more popular tools in my workshops has been the “6Rs” tool (see the nearby graphic) for building better habits.
I’ll first illustrate them with an example (and I’ll touch on the theory behind it at the end of the article).
A manager came to me saying, “I’ve been told that I’m too tactical and often get lost in the weeds. How can I do better at seeing the big picture?”
Reflect (as is and to be) – We started by looking for one habit to work on. I suggested that we look at her behaviors in meetings with her colleagues, which frequently included cross functional members and occasionally executives. The habit to break was one at the start of the meeting: She came to the meeting with a laptop or device and usually spent the time using the device prior to the start of the meeting, and often through the meeting as well.
Even though she was in a meeting, she (and the others) found themselves acting like “loners.” There was little sense of connection or community; the meeting was just a microcosm of the “silos” of specialization and complexity in the company. Information sharing was a perfunctory exchange of status and action items. I asked, “Do you feel like you miss opportunities to learn about the big picture in your meetings? If you knew the other people better, couldn’t you be more proactive?” She agreed that both statements applied to her.
The habit we wanted to change her personal engagement in meetings. More specifically, it was to focus on the other individuals and not on the devices. She would have to start making more conversation before, during, and after in the meetings. To be a better strategic thinker, one needs to move beyond “small talk” and “chit-chat” into more substantive matters. I’m talking about really getting to know the people and the organizations they represent.
The habit to develop is one of asking more exploratory questions: “Jim, what do others in your department think about this project? Is it going to make their jobs easier or harder?”
Recognize (the need) – It takes work to change habits. This next R deals with the benefits of making a change. For this “R” you need to determine: Are the rewards worth it? How might your life be better?
Re-label (your reactions) – Habits are a response to a stimulus. Let’s assume that you would call yourself a “chocaholic” – a lover of chocolate. I offer a beautiful piece of chocolate to you. Do you have an impulsive urge to take it? Do you give it thought, or just do it?
Back to my example: my client recognized that when the meeting room was “screens up,” meaning that people were focused on laptops and devices. Should we assume the behavior as a sign of that they were busy with urgent matters and didn’t want to be interrupted? More likely, it meant that they were just bored. She developed three guiding maxims that helped her re-label her philosophy:
- Strategy is inherently ambiguous
- Perfectionism leads to avoidance of opportunity
- Engagement is empowering.
She decided that she would re-characterize her presence in meetings as an opportunity to capture new ideas and meet important stakeholders.
Refocus (on new behaviors) – Focusing your attention is vitally important. For this task, she decided that she would sit next to new people (especially executives), shake hands, and ask questions that reflected a sincere curiosity about the other person, their department, and the business situation.
Revalue (in real time) – This step is training your mind to adopt a new and different set of values that are more aligned with your goals. People who hold the big picture and think strategically have an investment mindset that recognizes opportunities.
To do this step requires meta-cognition; the awareness of your own thinking.
Respond – This final R is the practice of consciously (and consistently) behaving differently. Through repetition, you are forming new habits.
Here is another example of the 6Rs. The topic is introducing Agile Project Management principles and agile thinking. Each of the below bullets corresponds to the 6R model:
- We need to make the customer the hero
- We have to listen to the customer
- The new situation is high customer involvement
- More frequent meetings
- Hold daily meetings
- We value meetings
A Few Comments on Theory
Habits are reflexive memories; that is, a habit is learned and it is an automatic response to a stimulus. Recall the chocolate example above. Not everyone responds this way. Neurologically, habit is governed by a brain structure called the basal ganglia, which is located in the center of the brain. Conscious thought is found in the prefrontal cortex. The pre-frontal cortex can over-ride the impulses of the basal ganglia; but, that requires mental energy, as you might guess.
Do you agree that changing individual habits can result in changed organizational culture?