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Academic IT Departments and "The Power of Habit"
January 17, 2013 - 9:00pm

The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg

Published in February, 2012.

What is the last book you passed around to your direct reports or your larger organization? A book that you thought was worth the time for your colleagues to read, worth the investment of paying for the book, and worth the time for everyone to discuss? A book that you thought would help get everyone on the same page, challenge current thinking, and inspire your team?

I'd like to nominate Charles Duhigg's terrific The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business as your next book to pass around at work.

Duhigg ranges across three units of analysis in explaining how habits drive behaviors: the individual, the organization, and the societal. Each level of specificity offers a powerful lens to understand, interpret, and change behavior - but it is at the level of the organization that The Power of Habit most shines.

What are the big goals that you have for your academic IT unit?   

Perhaps your goals are as broad as providing unparalleled service to your constituents and stakeholders. Or to advance the core teaching and research missions of your institution through the power of information technology.      

The lesson of The Power of Habit is that organizational change is built on the accumulation of positive habits across all levels of the unit. The positive habits necessary to achieve and sustain systematic improvements do not necessarily have to start with the big goals that you are trying to influence. Rather, individuals' positive habits around more focused behaviors can build on each other in a virtuous cycle, and result in large organizational and cultural changes.

One example that Duhigg uses in the The Power of Habit is Paul O'Neill's tenure at the aluminum giant Alcoa. When O'Neill took the CEO role of Alcoa in 1987 the company was suffering from diminished profits, low productivity, and high levels of mistrust and conflict between workers and management. Rather than initially tackling these larger problems, O'Neill launched a series of workplace safety initiatives built around the goal of zero tolerance for workplace accidents.  In needing to understand the habits that led to accidents, Alcoa employees were forced to change behaviors that contributed to a culture of unsafe working conditions. 

These changes included flattening the organizational hierarchy so that information and ideas could flow throughout the company, and creating a system of recording keeping and data sharing so that incidents and best practices could be shared.  For Alcoa to achieve the highest levels of worker safety the company needed to transform itself into a learning organization, one that was able to critically examine its own practices and take actions to change what was not working. The results of this cultural shift, built on changing the habits of the members of the organization, was greater productivity, profitability, and employee satisfaction.

The promise of the Power of Habit is that we follow the lead of Alcoa, and tackle our big Academic IT organizational goals by changing our habits around smaller and more specific objectives.    Perhaps we set a goal that all help tickets are answered within 2 hours, and resolved within 1 day. Or that we have zero unplanned downtime of our operations.  Or when unplanned downtime does occur, that we provide a full report on the incident to the community within 24 hours.  

From these specific goals, we can start to examine our own habits that inhibit us from reaching our objectives. We can find ways for our organization to own any issues, to share information across the organization and outwards to stakeholders. Actions such as personal accountability and transparency are learned habits. They must be practiced over and over again, until they become automatic.  

Sharing The Power of Habit within your organization should get everyone talking about good and bad habits, and the organizational structure and culture that promotes or inhibits positive behaviors.  I think that everyone will greatly enjoy reading The Power of Habit, as Dugigg combines the storyteller's gift and a the command of the academic literature essential for effective popular nonfiction.

What are you reading?

 

 

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