The power of small habits
Doing hard things is hard!
Doing big things is hard!
Doing small things is not as hard.
The big idea for me, is that developing good habits on small, easy things, can have the direct effect of making bigger, harder things easier to do.
Organizations struggle with execution. Execution is hard!
One of things that sets organizations with a high capacity for execution apart from those that struggle, is that they also pay attention to creating good habits on small things.
Changing attitudes and expectations with small habits
One of the things that made me start observing this in business was reading about something described really well in Malcom Gladwell’s book, The Tipping Point.
(I’ll paraphrase A LOT here, to get quickly to my point — I recommend reading this directly from The Tipping Point if you are interested.)
He talked about how serious crime in New York City was greatly reduced in the 80’s, not by directly going after the big crimes, but by making a concerted effort to eliminate two small crimes, 1. Jumping the turnstiles to avoid paying subway fare, and 2. Graffiti on the subways.
Police started relentlessly arresting people for turnstile jumping, and every single night, any train car with graffiti on it got pulled off the track and painted over.
The point is this: People with intentions to commit bigger crimes saw this enforcement of these minor things, and the culture changed. They sensed that “if they are that serious about these small offenses, they must be really serious about bigger ones. This is not an environment where crime is tolerated.”
Small Corporate Crimes
Two small-crime analogies I see in corporations are late meetings, and not addressing missed deadlines.
1. Late Meetings
Late meetings may not seem like a big deal, in fact most organizations laugh it off, “yeah, we’re really bad about that around here”.
When everyone is chronically late to meetings, and you don’t address it, you are sending a cultural signal that: we are not serious about what we say we are going to do.
If, instead, you set and enforce an expectation that meetings will start and end on time, and they do – not only do you get the huge benefit of cost and time savings, and more productive meetings —
— You get the additional, even-bigger benefit of an expectation in your organization that it matters here what we say and commit to.
— If our reaction is this serious to someone being late to meeting, it’s going to be a really big deal if we don’t deliver!
The good, small habit of reinforcing on-time meetings can directly lead to the important bigger habits: We are very serious about managing our schedules, commitments, and business.
2. Missed Deadlines
The other related, rampant behavior I see is that deadlines come and go, and nothing happens…
Often it may seem like a small thing… We agreed to review the new website landing page on Thursday and we didn’t. The world did not come to an end.
So no one mentions it.
This seemingly small non-reaction to a small missed deadline, when multiplied over and over again, sends a very loud and strong signal that: There are no consequences here for missing deadlines.
By not communicating, you are communicating: We don’t really care about missed deadlines. It’s no big deal.
“This is Unacceptable”
No matter how small a deadline seems, if it is missed it should be addressed.
You don’t need to fire someone every time something goes wrong, but you do need to address it. Have the conversation.
This is unacceptable. You did not deliver. What happened? Do you realize the downstream problems this causes? What is your proposal to recover? How do you propose we now get this finished AND address the customer/sales/market issue this has created? How will you ensure this does not happen again?
Even if the end result seems the same…the new date has still slipped 2 weeks out, the fact that you had the conversation will resonate far beyond this one deadline.
If you always have the conversation, (a small habit that is easy to do) it will help your organization see and feel that you are serious about execution, and that schedules and commitments really do matter.
And then the next time people will think, if I miss a deadline, something uncomfortable is going to happen.
Sure, it can be uncomfortable to have a conversation about missed goals and consequences, but if you miss a goal, you should be uncomfortable! That’s the point.
People will start self-managing, and delivering on time, to avoid those conversations.
Having a conversation (a small habit) makes execution (a big, difficult thing) easier to manage.
Boring and Required (but worth it)
Sure, this is not the fun and exciting part of any job — keeping track of commitments and following through when things go wrong.
But I have found that it actually doesn’t take a lot of enforcement to create better habits, and move the culture in this direction.
The small things automatically drive the big things.
What do you think?
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Patty Azzarello is an executive, best-selling author, speaker and CEO/Business Advisor. She became the youngest general manager at HP at the age of 33, ran a billion dollar software business at 35 and became a CEO for the first time at 38 (all without turning into a self-centered, miserable jerk)