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Old habits die hard

By 10th December 2015October 11th, 2023No Comments

Let’s get scientific – even in adulthood, our brains are continually changing. We call this neuroplasticity. In order to learn new information, the brain must establish new neural pathways. New pathways become stronger the more they are used. Think of taking a walk in the woods; following our usual route is easy because we do this almost on autopilot – the path is heavily worn. Choosing and sticking to a new route is harder and only becomes easier once we have walked it many times.

The same concept applies to our behaviours. We need to do something frequently for it to become habit.

Neuroplasticity is the reason we continue to learn and become better at things over time. It is the reason why we can learn new languages or play new instruments at any age. It is also the reason we develop habits. Habits are largely helpful – imagine if we had to think about whether to get up in the morning, to have breakfast, to clean our teeth or figure out our route to work – although forgetting the way to the office could be a fantastic new reason for being late! In fact, more than 50% of what we do are unconscious habits (Fast Company, 2015).

No wonder then the saying “old habits die hard”.

If we want to get people to do things without thinking, we get them to a point of mastery so the new way becomes unconscious. Perhaps a great example of this is Michael Phelps’s training that made him the most decorated Olympian of all time. At just aged 7, Phelps started training but his coach knew habits—in addition to skills—would secure success. So, the coach built a sequence of pre-race activities designed to give the swimmer a sense of building victory. That way, the race—and winning the race—is just a step in Phelps’ to do list, which includes stretching and exercising. By the time of the race, Phelps is already more than halfway through his unconscious habits and his normal daily pattern.

So when we are introducing a new technology, which needs people to change their habits, we need to create all the right conditions for success. We need to help people understand the change, the risk associated with not changing, and the ‘what’s in it for me’ factor. Only then will they want to change. We also need to give them the knowledge to change whether that is through training, education or information, and then make sure they can apply their new found knowledge back in the workplace. We need to constantly remind ourselves why we’re making the change, so we don’t go back to treading the same old path in the woods. Only then can we achieve mastery.

Inform recently engaged with a large global enterprise who had deployed Microsoft Office 365 eight-months prior but were struggling to realise the benefits of their investment. Our remit was to help them improve adoption. We began with a Discovery engagement which helped us establish the two key main issues:

  1. Use of Microsoft Lync, now Skype for Business, was very limited outside of IT.
  2. People were struggling to use Microsoft SharePoint in the way it was designed to be used.

Through our Discovery engagement, we established that the benefits were not being realised because:

  1. The old pathways are the easiest. By keeping telephones on people’s desks and not retracting licenses for external conferencing tools, the customer was making it easy for people to stick with same habits.
  2. People don’t know, what they don’t know. The Office 365 programme was heavily focused around deployment of the tools, however little attention was paid to how people would learn about the functionality of the new technology. And if they don’t know that something exists, how can they use it?
  3. We are not valued for what we share. In order to realise the benefits associated with collaboration, people have to change their attitude to sharing. Since we were little, we have been rewarded for what we know. We weren’t allowed to collaborate with our friends in the exam room, the weekly spelling test or our driving test; we gain merits based on our own behaviour. Similarly, in the workplace we are rarely valued for sharing – we are typically promoted, targeted or rewarded for personal achievement, which is driven by what we know. So introducing new technology which relies on us adopting the alien concept of sharing presents a few challenges.
  4. Travel is a habit. For many people, work is still a place to go rather than a thing you do. With this particular customer, people were not thinking about how they might apply the new technology in their daily lives to help them reduce the amount of travel. They were not thinking of it in terms of a work/life balance enabler, that might allow them to work a few days from home, or prevent them having to get up really early to drive to a meeting. So they continued to do the things that were comfortable for them, as if the policy surrounding them hadn’t changed.

So to create the conditions for change, and prepare users for success, as Michael Phelps’ coach did, Inform made the following recommendations:

  1. Create an awareness programme around the benefits of Office 365 to help different audiences understand ‘what’s in it for them’.
  2. Understand that people work in different ways, train them accordingly, telling stories and using examples to make the change real.
  3. Remove phones from desks.
  4. Retract licenses for alternative conference tools.
  5. Make time for people to evaluate how they work rather than falling into their habitual way of working.
  6. Measure travel spend and implement saving targets, base-line call and online meeting usage and agree what success looks like.

Following the report, the client targeted a 15% cost saving on their £21 million travel budget. This formed the business justification for investing in a bespoke knowledge initiative.

The end result was:

  • 2,000% increase in online meetings in Q1
  • Travel savings targets achieved
  • Reduced real estate costs
  • £120 productivity saving per meeting
  • Reduced software licence costs

It is important to the customer that this continues as normal practice rather than being a mere trend so new joiners attend a 90-minute virtually-delivered IT Induction programme to establish the ways of working within their first two weeks of joining.

So to conclude, it is important for anyone embarking on a change to not underestimate the power of habit.

Look out for our next insight, where we explore the ‘What’s in it for me?’ concept in more detail and how important it is to understand your audience.

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