The Power of Habit

“Simply giving employees a sense of agency – a feeling that they are in control, that they have genuine decision-making authority – can radically increase how much energy and focus they bring to their jobs.” 

-Charles Duhigg

I love this book because it addresses habits in the context of both how to change individual habits, as well as how understanding habit building loops are key to evolving culture. This book is essential reading for anyone that is interested in the fields of experience management and organizational effectiveness.

The core concept of the book is the habit building loop, which includes three components. First, you need a cue, which is a trigger that includes some combination of location, time, emotional state, and interactions with other people. Second, the routine is a sequence of emotional, mental or physical behaviors. Third, the reward is the result of your routine and signals the end of the habit loop. The more you perform the habit loop, the more you strengthen the relationship between the corresponding neurons in your brain (referred to as neuroplasticity), and the more likely your brain is to store it as an automatic routine. As you build up a habit loop, you crave the reward, releasing dopamine closer to the cue than the reward, itself. The intensity of the craving can be 10x stronger than the experience of the actual reward! For example, you may have experienced an urge to check your mobile phone when it vibrates and experience the emotional response even before you’ve read the message. Research suggests that habit routines make up to 40% of our decisions in a day, a reflection of how much human beings seek to save mental energy (see Thinking, Fast and Slow for more on how our brains work and how this impacts our decision-making effectiveness).

Marketers are constantly looking for insights into our mindsets and behaviors so that they can tailor advertising, in store displays, website design, and other experiences to tap into our existing habits or to create a new habit loop that fosters brand loyalty. For example, by developing unique shopper insights into how we shop a category, marketers can dramatically increase the effectiveness of the design of a store planogram or off-shelf display. The same principles can be applied to the customer journey overall. Achieving “digital containment” where customers adopt self-service and other low/no touch digital experience requires customers to respond to a cue, adopt a routine, and experience a reward. If the routine is too hard to execute, i.e., there are too many pain points and not enough love points on the customer journey, then adoption of the desired behaviors suffers. This applies to both customers and your employees along the customer journey, given that many interactions along the journey are person-to-person even if you do an exceptional job on digital containment.

The Power of Habit reinforces the importance of building insights into unconscious thought if you want to influence customer behavior and create stronger brand loyalty. To influence behavior along a shopper’s path to purchase, you need to understand and isolate the cues that trigger a habit routine, what the routine is, and what the reward is. For more on how to systematically categorize cues and delve into unconscious thought that shapes customer experience, I highly recommend Clued In by Lou Carbone, another book on my top ten list that I’ll write about in an upcoming blog.

Beyond addressing how habit building loops are key to understanding and shaping customer behavior at an individual level, The Power of Habit also delves into the importance that habit building loops play in organizational culture. It is the cumulative impact of the decisions of many individuals that shapes the culture overall. And just like for individuals, habits are hard to change for organizations. You may have heard the adage “it’s easier to act your way into a new mindset,” which means that changing your behavior leads to changing mindsets more than the other way around. This is why it’s also said that “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” I’ll spend more time on how to catalyze culture evolution in another upcoming review of Leading Outside the Lines, one of many great books by Jon Katzenbach and others with whom he's collaborated with from the Katzenbach Center. I’ve greatly enjoyed my own collaborations with the Katzenbach Center over the years, including some featured here on our website.

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