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How Habits Can Spark Innovation Programs

The Chain Reaction of Keystone Habits


Keystone habits start a process, like a chain reaction over time, to transform everything, says author Charles Duhigg in his book, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. What are keystone habits and why are they important for innovation? Because when old habits can be changed, they have the potential to be remade into newer desirable patterns--and keystones can change other habits and spark innovation.

Interestingly, Duhigg describes in The Power of Habit that when companies focus on changing habits, whole organizations can transform. At Alcoa Aluminum, for example, record profits and safety records were accomplished by changing one habit that had a ripple effect throughout the entire organization. Paul O’Neill, CEO, former treasury secretary, needed to turn around the aluminum producer from a struggling spiral of mismanagement practices. He figured his top priority would have to be important enough for everybody, as it turns out, worker safety, to bring people together and cause change, including habits in the way people worked and communicated.

Innovation management processes, where organizations work collaboratively to cultivate new ideas for products and services, can also benefit from a more structured approach. Much of the work to implement an innovation process is brought about through communication. A non-profit organization, Cotton Incorporated with deep ties to cotton manufacturing and the global marketing supply chain, saw that often it would take six months just to get everyone involved in a new project. The company’s researchers realized the routine of collaborating with partners was a big part of what they needed to do. Starting from the ground up, the innovation team developed a corporate communication strategy to make the necessary connections between all the stakeholders in a rapidly streamlined fashion.

In Duhigg’s book, he suggests small wins also fuel transformative changes by leveraging tiny advantages into patterns. You can convince people in this way that bigger achievements are within reach. For the Olympic swimmer, Michael Phelps and his coach, Bob Bowman, together they worked on tiny moments of success and built them into mental triggers. As Bowman said, “We do a series of things before every race that are designed to give Michael a sense of building victory."

Habit Loops Can Act as Keystone Habits

The study of habits has been the work of researchers of major universities to see how habits work and how habits can change. The habit loop as described in The Power of Habit, is a three-step loop: cue, routine, and reward. Overtime the loop becomes automatic, and understanding the structure can make them easier to control. Here is a description of each of the loop components and examples.

Identify a cue. Like a trigger, a cue tells your brain which habit to use. Duhigg writes about when Bowman started working with Phelps and his mother on the keystone habits of visualization and relaxation. To see how this plays out, Phelps had the unexpected happen in an Olympic race--his googles filled with water. Losing your sight may cause you to panic, but Phelps remained calm--and he went on to set a world record.

In the situation of Cotton Incorporated, the company found its keystone habit--it is adept at harvesting ideas. An interdisciplinary team identifies top priority projects and meets biweekly in pursuit of its sustainable model of development.

Institute an automatic routine. A process when the brain converts a sequence of actions into an automatic routine is called chunking. For Phelps and Bowman, it was about habits that take over, which explains their preparedness before each race.

To carry out an automatic routine in collaborative organizations, for example, managers can monitor their collaborative performance, not only accountability for their business units, but also their contributions across the company.

Create a reward. A reward helps you figure out whether your habit loop is worth remembering, much like a result. In the Alcoa example, when the CEO instituted safety practices, only the people who embraced the system would be promoted.

Running a successful innovation program can also result in rewards of new profitability, market share, and that powerful feeling of discovery and victory that brings people together.

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