Change Is Good: H Is for Habit

Slalom Consulting Roger Kastner

A Consultant Manager with Slalom Consulting, Roger works with clients and other consultants in the delivery of Organizational Effectiveness and Project Leadership services and helps practitioners achieve greater success than previously possible.

I love witnessing personal transformations.

This is why I enjoy watching the Ironman competition and “The Biggest Loser.” Ultimately, it’s the moment when one realizes that
what was once perceived as impossible is now achievable. It’s breaking the habit of doubt, and creating a new habit of possibility.

For me, this moment came when I ran my first marathon, something that I once believed was ridiculous and impossible. After I completed my first 26.2 mile race, it still seemed ridiculous, but it was now my new reality. My new habit is that now when something is said to be impossible, the voice in my head says, “Oh really? Let’s see about that.”

Occasionally I’ll come across advice from other change practitioners that one should “not attempt to change culture.” While I understand that the undertaking of changing culture is not easy, I don’t think it’s as impossible as some might think. In fact, we witness cultural changes all the time, so I do not accept the guidance to “not try to change culture,” but instead I take the advice as a warning and acknowledgement that just like a marathon, it’s not easy but it is doable.

An organization’s culture is made up of accepted behaviors and norms, usually tied to that organization’s vision and based on the agreements and alliances amongst leaders. As societal and organizational behaviors and norms change, these changes are set and modeled by the identified leaders, whether on purpose or not.

And if leaders are enforcing and reinforcing behaviors, and if we endeavor to change them, we should look into how these behaviors are created and target the habits that make change hard.

It’s just that simple.

Behaviors are created out of habits. To change behaviors, you need to address habits.

In individuals, habits are mental time-savers. When we experience anything, our limbic system attempts to connect that “thing” with a habit, and if there’s a successful match to a habit, off we go salivating like Pavlov’s dog into employing that habit. For example:

  • “Monday Night Football” intro song might trigger a craving for Buffalo wings
  • The sound of an ice cream truck might make a grown man go running down the street, quarters in hand, hoping for a Drumstick
  • The smell of French fries being blown into a busy sidewalk cause passersby to walk into a fast-food restaurant

In his book, The Power of Habit, author Charles Duhigg breaks down the habit cycle into three steps: cue, routine, and reward. While the cue and reward will stay constant, Duhigg suggests that we can change the routine to successfully achieve a desired change.

As an example, the author discusses a simple cycle he found himself in—he was gaining weight from eating a cookie every afternoon. The cue was the clock hitting 3 p.m. The reward, it turns out, was not the cookie but rather the interaction he enjoyed when talking with colleagues once he arrived in the cafeteria. The routine was getting out of his chair and buying a cookie. Once he realized that the cue and reward were separate from the cookie, he lost the weight.

Try it yourself: think about the behaviors you want to change, see if you can identify the cue, routine, and reward. If you can, play around with the routine to see if you can still achieve the same reward.

Here’s an example of my attempt to change a personal habit: I was always rushing around the house in the morning trying to get out the door, not exactly late, but running to be on time. I woke up with plenty of time to get out the door on time, but it was always a scramble. The culprit for running out of time was that I was reading the paper each morning.

  • Cue: coming downstairs and getting the paper off the front step
  • Reward: feeling of being connected to my city and sports team
  • Routine: sitting at the table with a cup of coffee, my breakfast, and reading the paper

For me, my cue and reward did not need to change, but my routine was taking too much time and needed to be altered. It took some experimenting on my part, but I now get my headline news from the radio in the car, I read the local section at night, and I now limit myself to the sports section when I have breakfast. The result? I’m less hurried when I leave in the morning, and I even have enough time now to say (instead of shout) goodbye to the kids and wife.

Can we change organizational behaviors by focusing on the routines in habits?

Drawing again from The Power of Habit, Duhigg addresses organizational habits and paints the picture this way: organizational habits are created by the truces amongst leaders.

So if individuals do create, impact, and reinforce organizational behaviors, there must be a way for individuals to change organizational behaviors. To do so, we can focus on habits and successfully address the routines that negatively impact performance.

It’s just that simple.

Within that “habit” focus, you need to identify the cues, routines, and rewards that make up organizational habits, and then develop an approach that honors the rewards, and changes the routines.

I recently wrote in B is for Behavior about a client that identified behavioral issues that she wanted changed. These issues included not identifying solutions to problems, not taking accountability for problems, and taking too much time to analyze options before attempting a solution. Taking a Habit focus, the cue and reward are relatively simple to identify:

  • Cue: A problem has occurred
  • Reward: Feeling of safety from not being blamed for the negative result

The routine, however, included all three behavioral issues: identification of problems but not solutions, blaming others, not taking accountability for problems, and once a problem is identified, taking too long to analyze options before attempting solutions.

In order to successfully change the behaviors, I advised the client to enforce a change in the routine:

  • Be solution-oriented: when individuals came to her with a problem, she was to ask for possible solutions, and if the individual didn’t have any, they were to be told to come back once they had solutions to discuss.
  • Act with accountability: the client was to start demonstrating accountability as defined by The Oz Principle – first, ask “How did I contribute to this problem?” Then ask, “How can we move this toward the desired goal?”
  • Bias towards action: allow people to try their solutions with an intention to “check and adjust,” acknowledging and accepting that the first attempt will not likely resolve the issues and a second and third attempt is acceptable to perfect the solution.

In a desire to embrace simplicity, I suggested that the client only focus on the first change in the routine, and introduce the next two later on only if necessary, as those changes in behavior might come on their own once individuals started to feel the reward, thereby feeling safe in creating their own solutions.


To be fair, when change practitioners say to “not attempt to change culture,” I think what they are truly suggesting is to embrace the positive attributes of an organization’s culture when attempting to initiate a change. However, when what we want to change is specifically organizational behavior, focusing on the habit cycle—while honoring the system of cues and rewards—allows for the change in the routines that we see as behaviors.

Organizational cultural change is possible. Like losing 300lbs, running 26.2 miles, or making an organization more accountable after years of being allowed to point fingers.

There is a purpose embedded in every behavior, and to be able to change behavior, we need to tease apart the reward from the routine, and then honor the reward while instilling a new routine. By going to that level, organizational cultural change is possible when we focus on behaviors and habits.

It’s just that simple.

About Roger Kastner
As a member of the Organizational Effectiveness practice at Slalom Consulting, I'm excited to share my perspectives and experiences with Change and Project Management to help clients and practitioners achieve their goals and objectives.

2 Responses to Change Is Good: H Is for Habit

  1. The best (or probably the only) way to change behavior/organizational culture is to revise closely the habits. Only by identifying and changing these patterns we can prevent repetition of unwanted results.
    Very good article Roger! Thank you

    • Roger Kastner says:

      Glad you liked it, Anya. I think you are right, culture change requires a change in habit cycle, and usually it requires an equal if not greater change in the habit cycle of leaders.

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