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    The StratEDgy blog is intended to be a thoughtful hub for discussion about strategy and competition in higher education.

Small Wins
August 12, 2012 - 8:52pm

Every so often we all get the sense that we might be stuck in a rut. Chances are, it’s probably true.  From Charles Duhigg’s book, The Power of Habit – why we do what we do in life and business: “… a Duke University researcher in 2006 found that more than 40 percent of the actions people performed each day weren’t actual decisions, but habits.”

It’s not surprising that organizations, which are comprised of habit-forming individuals, also fall into this pattern. “…it may seem like most organizations make rational choices based on deliberate decision making, but that’s not really how companies operate at all. Instead, firms are guided by long-held organizational habits, patterns that often emerge from thousands of employees’ independent decisions.”

Over time, a higher ed institution’s culture might shift toward reinforcing undesirable actions. For example, there could be implicit rewards for poor communication between departments, or employees might get the message that only top administrators can suggest new ideas, or we might come to accept the “because it’s what we did last year” phenomenon.  Eventually, it’s likely these less productive tendencies will be identified, but the person attempting to raise the issue or implement change is often met with resistance. The research presented in The Power of Habit suggests that one way to start to turn the ship is to aim for small wins.  Successfully changing one seemingly minor decision can create momentum for many other small modifications to be made, which can eventually tip the scales toward the transformation that’s needed.

Duhigg cites examples of this working across industries.  Here’s just one example of how one decision can tip the scales toward a desirable organizational change:  “…take the Environmental Protection Agency, which was created in 1970.  The EPA’s first administrator, William Ruckelshaus, consciously engineered organizational habits that encouraged his regulators to be aggressive on enforcement. When lawyers asked for permission to file a lawsuit or enforcement action, it went through a process for approval. The default was authorization to go ahead. The message was clear: At the EPA, aggression gets rewarded. By 1975, the EPA was issuing more than 1,500 new environmental rules a year.”

One of Duhigg’s biggest takeaways is that it’s never too late to break a habit – individual or organizational.   What “small win” can you champion?


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