• Toby Sinclair

How To Use Atomic Habits at Work | The Big Ideas for Organisations

Updated: Feb 7


Buy | Reviews | Bio

Join Habits Program

Toby's Rating: 10/10 - Recommended For: Everyone

Atomic Habits is a worldwide bestseller. It helps you build systems that enable effective habits to emerge.


This article is part book summary, part how-to guide.


It is written specifically for leaders, coaches and consultants who lead organisational change.

  • How do you change behaviours in organisations?

  • What influences organisational habits?

  • What can leaders do to encourage behaviour change?

You'll learn the key principles from Atomic Habits. You'll also learn from my experience how to apply it within an organisational context.


The 7 Big Ideas for organisations

  1. Tiny improvements lead to remarkable results

  2. Focus less on goals, OKR's and outcomes. Focus more on systems.

  3. Change who you are by what you do.

  4. Design the Environment to make change obvious.

  5. Use social dynamics to make change attractive.

  6. Enable consistency to make change easy.

  7. Reward desired behaviours instantly to make change satisfying.


2 Quotes to share with your management


"Goals are good for setting a direction, but systems are best for making progress."

Click to Tweet


Habits are the compound interest of improvement."

Click to Tweet



1 Key Takeaway


When the behaviour of the individual and the organisation are at odds. The behaviour of the organisation wins.

Click to Tweet


Fix the System, not the people. If you’re having trouble changing organisational habits, the problem isn’t the people. The system consists of the organisation policies, procedures, rewards, environment and much more. If these make behaviour change hard then change will not happen.


Fix the system by making habits easier to form. Make it Obvious. Make it Attractive. Make it Easy. Make it Satisfying.

.

Why small habits can make a big difference to your organisation


It is easy to overestimate the importance of one defining moment and underestimate the value of making small improvements on a daily basis.


Too often, organisations convince themselves that massive success requires massive action. The multi-year change program, the big product launch and company-wide training roll-out. The reality, success is the product of daily habits—not once-in-a-lifetime transformations.


Small changes can really lead to remarkable results.


An example:

"The impact created by a change in habits is similar to the effect of shifting the route of an airplane by just a few degrees. Imagine you are flying from Los Angeles to New York City. If a pilot leaving from LAX adjusts the heading just 3.5 degrees south, you will land in Washington, D.C., instead of New York. Such a small change is barely noticeable at takeoff—the nose of the airplane moves just a few feet—but when magnified across the entire United States, you end up hundreds of miles apart."

What could a small shift in your organisation lead to?


The difference a tiny improvement can make over time is astounding. The challenge for many organisations is the time it takes to shift habits at scale. Habits often appear to make no difference until you cross a critical threshold and unlock a new level of performance. It’s the work you did long ago—when it seemed that you weren’t making any progress—that makes the jump today possible.


"Habits are the compound interest of improvement."

- James Clear


Focus less on Goals, OKR's and Outcomes. Focus more on systems.


Goals are about the results you want to achieve. Systems are about the processes that lead to those results. Goals are good for setting a direction, but systems are best for making progress.


Goal thinking has these challenges:

  1. Winners and losers have the same goals.

  2. Achieving a goal is only a momentary change.

  3. Goals restrict your happiness.

  4. Goals are at odds with long-term progress.


A popular topic in the agile community is shifting from outputs to outcomes.


Outcomes are good for setting direction, but they will not be achieved without the right habits. To develop good habits your organisation needs good systems of consistency. Organisations should be concerned with their ability to consistently perform good habits. For example, how easy it is to write high-quality code.


Ultimately, consistent behaviour over time that will determine progress.


Fundamental Attribution bias is common in many organisations. A tendency to underestimate the impact of the environment. If you’re having trouble changing behaviour in your organisation, the problem likely isn’t the people. It's likely to be a system problem.


Organisations do not rise to the level of their goals. Organisations fall to the level of their systems.

Click To Tweet

Change who you are by what you do


There are three layers of behaviour change:



Outcomes are about what you get. Processes are about what you do. Identity is about what you believe.


Many organisations begin the process of change by focusing on the outcome. What they want to achieve. A better approach is to focus on who rather than what - Who do we wish to become?


"Real behavioural change is identity change."

- James Clear


Identity is influenced by beliefs and values. These shape the way people behave. Our Identity can shift based upon context. in which we are acting.


Your organisational context will have a set of behaviours that are deemed to be socially acceptable.


When the behaviour of the individual and the organisation are at odds. The behaviour of the organisation wins.

Click to Tweet


This tension creates challenges for employees. It can feel more comfortable to believe what your culture believes even if it’s wrong. Success for organisations and employees is when your behaviour and your identity are fully aligned.


It's common to attribute lack of change to "mindset". This implies that a transformative moment needs to happen to change their beliefs. This rarely happens.


Your identity emerges out of your habits. The more you repeat a behaviour, the more you reinforce the identity associated with that behaviour. Every action you take is a vote for the type of person and organisation you wish to become.


The most practical way to change who you are is to change what you do.


"Quite literally, you become your habits."

- James Clear

Four Laws of Behavior Change


These are the 4 laws that help habit formation become effortless:

  1. Make it obvious

  2. Make it attractive

  3. Make it easy

  4. Make it satisfying



When the levers are in the right positions, creating good habits is effortless. When they are in the wrong positions, it is nearly impossible.


The following sections share how organisations can leverage the 4 Laws of Behaviour Change.


Design the environment to make change obvious.


1st Law of Behaviour Change - Make it obvious


Environment strongly influences behaviour. You'll behave differently at the office compared to a rock concert. Every habit is context-dependent.


In 1936, psychologist Kurt Lewin wrote a simple equation that makes a powerful statement:

"Behavior is a function of the Person in their Environment, or B = f (P,E)"

The environment sends signals on how to behave. A tidy, clean office might suggest organised and consistent behaviours are accepted. A messy and colourful office might suggest creative behaviours are accepted.


Visual cues are the greatest catalyst for behaviour. A small change in what you see can lead to a big shift in what people do. Organisations must pay close attention to the visual environment. Is it distracting or productive?


Your employees will act based upon the most visible cues in the organisation. What is grabbing their attention today?


A good place to start for organisations is to review existing cues within the environment. In the physical office, take a walk and observe what visual cues are present. In the digital space, what visual cues exist within the workspace. What's the first thing employees see when they log in?


Once you have a list of existing visual cues prioritise those that drive desired behaviour. Remove all others.


Making a better decision is easy and natural when the cues for good habits are right in front of employees. A stable environment where everything has a place and a purpose is an environment where habits can easily form.


In the long-run, people are a product of their environment. If your environment does not enable new habits to stick, then change will not occur.

Use the social system to make change attractive


2nd Law of Behaviour Change - Make it attractive


The more attractive an opportunity is, the more likely it is to become habit-forming. Many organisations fail to make change attractive. It's assumed that employees are already invested in change.


Whatever habits are normal in your culture are among the most attractive behaviours. Humans are herd animals. People want to fit in, to bond with others, and to earn the respect and approval of peers. Such inclinations are essential to survival. One of the deepest human desires is to belong.


Habits form through imitation.


Employees will imitate these three groups in your organisation:


  1. The close.

  2. The many.

  3. The powerful.


Imitating the Close


People pick up habits from the team they work within. As a general rule, the more time spent with someone, the more likely you are to imitate their habits.


Example:

“a person’s chances of becoming obese increased by 57% if he or she had a friend who became obese.”


Team members have a strong influence on how each other behave. It's vital that teams spend time working on habits together.


A great way to do this is to build habits together. I use the Tiny Habits method to help teams do this. Using a simple 6 step framework we identify habits that can help the team move towards their desired identity. You can access the Miro board template here


Imitating the Many


Whenever we are unsure how to act, we look to the group to guide our behaviour.


One study found that when a chimpanzee learns an effective way to crack nuts open as a member of one group and then switches to a new group that uses a less effective strategy, it will avoid using the superior nut cracking method just to blend in with the rest of the chimps.


The reward of being accepted is often greater than the reward of demonstrating improvement. Organisations need to find ways to increase safety to enable these ideas to be shared. Without it, the best ideas will stay hidden away.


The default for most is to be wrong with the crowd rather than be right on their own.


When changing habits means challenging the tribe, change is unattractive. When changing habits means fitting in with the tribe, change is very attractive.


Imitating the Powerful


Humans everywhere pursue power, prestige, and status. We are drawn to behaviours that earn us respect, approval, admiration, and status.


We copy the habits of the most successful and powerful people within the context. This is why people in power are so important in setting organisational culture. People will implicitly copy the habits of people with status and power. This is driven by fear of being cast out from the group and by the assumption that adopting the same habits will bring people the same status and power.


If the behaviour of your most powerful employees does not change, don't expect other people to change.


Change Agents should focus efforts on helping those with power change. The same principles can be applied.


Let's assume you wanted to build a culture of feedback in your organisation. An approach that applies the four laws of behaviour change would look like this:


  • Provide influential leaders with a stack of index cards on their desk - Make it Obvious

  • Share an index card with the leader giving them feedback - Make it Attractive

  • On the index card add a 2-3 feedback prompt templates and recommendations for who they might give feedback to - Make it Easy

  • When they give the index card it will automatically be satisfying with the human connection that is formed - Make it Satisfying


Once those in power shift their behaviour, it will provide a catalyst for change.

Enable consistency to make change easy


3rd Law of Behavioural Change - Make it easy


Habits form based on frequency, not time. The ability to stay consistent is what enables success.


For people to do something consistently it needs to be easy.


"When deciding between two similar options, people will naturally gravitate toward the option that requires the least amount of work."

Law of Least Effort


The more energy required, the less likely behaviour will happen.


Organisations need to lower the energy gradient for change.


This means addressing the factors that increase the energy gradient for change. Removing bureaucracy, policies and procedures that make change difficult.


Habits are easier to build when they fit into the flow of work.


Much of the battle of building better habits comes down to finding ways to reduce the friction associated with our good habits and increase the friction associated with our bad ones.


To make new habits easy, organisations should follow the Two-Minute Rule:

“When you start a new habit, it should take less than two minutes to do.”

- James Clear


The actions that follow can be challenging, but the first two minutes should be easy.


The goal might be to build a great product, but your gateway habit is to write a test for every piece of code.


But the point is not to do one thing. The point is to master the habit of showing up. The truth is, a habit must be established before it can be improved. If you can’t learn the basic skill of showing up, then you have little hope of mastering the finer details.


You have to standardize before you can optimize.

Reward desired behaviours instantly to make change satisfying


4th Law of Behavioural Change - Make it easy


People are more likely to repeat a behaviour when the experience is satisfying. If the behaviour is hard to do and there is no reward, there is little reason to repeat it.


Within organisations: What is rewarded is repeated. What is punished is avoided.


Bonuses and promotions are ineffective at changing behaviour. The rewards are delayed and conditional. To be effective the satisfaction of change must be immediate.


People value the present more than the future. A reward that is certain right now is typically worth more than one that is merely possible in the future.


The vital thing in getting a habit to stick is to feel successful—even if it’s in a small way.


Referring back to earlier, visual cues are the most potent. In the same way, visual rewards are also potent.


Finding ways to visualise progress is critical. Stickies on the wall, jars of paper clips for each behaviour. These are all great ways to reward behaviour in small ways.


This is why Kanban boards can be a great way to visualise behaviour. There is great gratification when you move a task to done. A kanban board implements all 4 laws. It's obvious, attractive, easy and rewarding.


We are more likely to repeat an experience when the ending is satisfying, we are also more likely to avoid an experience when the ending is painful.


If a failure is relatively painless, it gets ignored. When the consequences are severe, people learn quickly. The challenge for organisations is to design accountability systems for the right things. There is a risk that management point out errors to staff which is not great for morale.


Instead, this is where leadership can create accountability through asking questions "How could this be improved next time?", "What did we learn?"

©2020 by Toby Sinclair.

  • LinkedIn
  • Twitter
  • YouTube
  • Instagram