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Category Archives: Brain Matter

“Obviously a major malfunction”

Challenger_explosionOn January 29, 1986 I turned on the TV as the Space Shuttle Challenger climbed gracefully and powerfully into the sky, then watched as it exploded. The public affairs officer narrating the launch said those fateful words heard ’round the world: “Obviously a major malfunction.”

In 1977, two Boeing 747’s collided on the runway on the Spanish island of Tenerife killing 583 people in the dense fog. In both cases, there were destructive organizational habits that led to the disasters. 

According to Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Businessdestructive organizational habits can be found in nearly any industry or company (Duhigg 159). The destruction of the Challenger forced quality safety standards to the front of NASA’s priority list – something that many within the system had been trying to do for years. In the wake of the Tenerife collision, cockpit design changed, as did runway procedures and air traffic control communications (Duhigg 178). Even the concept of crew resource management can be traced back to Tenerife (in the collision, visibility was bad and the first officer advised the captain that the aircraft that had just landed had not cleared the runway. The captain insisted it had, applied full power and somewhere near takeoff speed, collided with the other 747 in the dense fog).

There is  power in crisis.

Duhigg further suggests that not only is there a power in a crisis but a good leader prolongs a crisis just a little bit to continue reaping the benefits of a crisis. I used to see this in aviation security. Every airport security director I knew kept a “wish list.” On the wish list was all the security improvements they would like to do but did not have the support of upper management, UNTIL there was a major aviation security incident. Once their was a bombing or hijacking or sufficient threat, airport directors would call their security directors and say, ‘what can we do about this?’  That was like being asked what you wanted for Christmas. You grabbed your ready-made wish list and started buying. You continued buying and making procedural changes until the crisis passed, or until the next crises came along (non-security related) and management’s attention would shift away from security. Then the security director started writing a new list.

Crisis allow, and often force, organizations to remake their habits.

Firms are guided by well-established organizational habits and patterns that frequently have emerged from thousands of employees independent decisions (Duhigg 161). Companies need routines, which provide the unwritten rules needed to operate while allowing workers to experiment with new ideas without constantly having to ask for permission (Duhigg 161). For example, in a study of relief workers working disasters the research showed that establishing communication networks was difficult due to the lack of infrastructure, so the aid workers had established the routine of hiring children to carry messages between neighborhoods (Duhigg 162). This was not an official policy that came down from Olympus, but a decision made at the field level that solved a problem and word spread to other workers and relief organizations. People will do what works.

However, destructive habits can also be formed. When there is a evil tyrant for a boss or supervisor, subordinate employees will create routines and habits that do anything from keeping the boss from getting upset, to routines that backstop the individual so that their arrogance or incompetence does not end up causing a greater problem. Go into any organization and you will soon see the various routines and habits that workers have established. Some are workarounds to the office dead weight, while others are rules of thumb that make a process more efficient or effective. Managers must keep an eye on the habits and routines that are in effect around the office and the organization. If they are destructive habits, then they need to be changed. If they are effective habits, then they need to be promoted.

We are people of routines and habits. Routines give us certainty. Routines can give us a sense of security – after all, I followed this routine yesterday and everything turned out okay, so if I follow it again today it will also be okay, right? However, if we never changed our routines we’d never change ourselves. If you only do what you always do you’ll only get what you’ve always gotten (sound like some great Fortune cookie wisdom there doesn’t it?) Actually, a good friend of mine once told me that to make fortune cookies funnier, you should always add the phrase, “in bed,” at the end. Let’s try that:  If you only do what you always do you’ll only get what you’ve always gotten, in bed!  Yep, works 🙂   Now, where was I?

The music industry has a challenge with this regard. Turns out, to no surprise, that people want to hear their favorite songs or songs that sound like their favorite song – if something different comes on, they change the dial (Duhigg 199). The entertainment industry has always been quick to jump on whatever trend seems to be making money at the time. Why do you think when there is a new TV show that is getting the ratings there will be 20 more just like it the following season? Why do you think when the first boy bands showed their success in the late 80s, there was a never ending series of boys in bands that followed for the next 20 years. Why do you think that when there is a successful new movie like when Star Wars came out it was quickly copied in the form of Battlestar Galactica and a few other one-offs, just like Top Gun was quickly copied in the form of the movie Iron Eagle.

For years the music industry tried to figure out why during some songs listeners never changed the dial. In industry parlance, these songs are known as “sticky,” (Duhigg 200). Sticky songs are what you expect to hear on the radio because it is familiar to you. The research showed that people enjoy songs they already like or songs that sound like what they already like, because it is something that is familiar to them (Duhigg 202). Our brains crave familiarity and hearing a similar song, gives us certainty. But if the only songs that are popular are ones that sound like other songs that are popular, how do we ever learn to enjoy completely new songs, or extending this out, how do we learn to change any routine, habit or behavior. The key is to wrap the familiar around the unfamiliar.

DJs learned that if you want to introduce a new song play it in between two already popular hits (Duhigg 207). This helps make the new song feel more familiar and people don’t rush to judgement on it (Duhigg 208). If you want to introduce a new habit or routine, or even sell a new product or service, dress up that new thing into something old, which makes it easier for people to accept it (Duhigg 210).

But first, its important to understand what’s going on. When the YMCA did research on why people selected certain health-clubs it showed that the selection had less to do with the types of equipment, classes and machines and more to do with emotional factors, such as whether the employees knew their customers names.

People want to visit places that satisfy their social needs – when people exercise in groups they are more likely to stick to the workout (Duhigg 211-212). I think this is one reason that the brick and mortar bookstores, like Barnes & Noble are still in business, despite the overhyped marketing of the electronic book apologists. Bookstores provide a place to connect socially, and allow you to browse a massive variety, without being restricted to whatever algebra formula that an online reseller tells me I’m going to like. In fact, this relates to another issue – people like to be in control of their lives and not have a computer telling them what they think they will like. Many of those “people who enjoyed this book also read…” are just different versions of the book you’re already looking at – seems the data crunchers know that to sell something, make it appear like something else that’s already popular.

In order to market a new habit, you have to make the new actually seem old. When there is a crisis, that is an excellent opportunity to effect change, but if there is not, there is merit to dressing up the new as the old, but just slightly more slick and better than the old, to get the program sold.

Duhigg, Charles. The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. New York: Random House, 2012. Print.

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