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The Transformative Power of Keystone Habits

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"Some habits matter more than others," Charles Duhigg told me during this week's episode of Marketing Smarts.

Duhigg recently published The Power of Habit, a book that explores the science of habit formation and habit change. While the book begins with a focus on the power of habits in the lives of individuals, the bulk of it is devoted to the study of organizational habits.

Just like individuals, organizations are an agglomeration of formal and informal habits; indeed, an organization's culture is precisely the sum of all its habits. Thus, if you want to change an organization's culture, you have to change its habits.

If you want to change habits, science tells us, you can't focus on a lot of different things. You need to focus on one thing. If you only have one arrow in your quiver, so to speak, you need to choose your target carefully, which is where "keystone habits" come in.

Keystone habits, as the name implies, are habits that play an important role in maintaining a whole slew of other habits within the structures of organizations. These habits can be identified by three specific characteristics, Duhigg says. The first trait of keystone habits is that they "tell an organization about a certain set of values." Second, keystone habits establish "a platform for other habits to unfold." Finally, focusing on keystone habits create "the opportunity for small wins."

To illustrate how working with keystone habits plays out in the real world, Duhigg recounts the story of Paul O'Neill's tenure as CEO of Alcoa. When O'Neill was named CEO, he shocked people by stating from the outset that his primary goal at Alcoa was to improve worker safety. In an industry where people worked with vast quantities of molten metal every day, O'Neill wanted the company to aim for zero injuries on the job.

Safety was a keystone habit at Alcoa for many reasons. First of all, focusing on safety sent the message that the leadership at Alcoa cared about the welfare of its workforce. The relationship between labor and management at Alcoa had been very contentious—workers had burned effigies of managers during protests, for example—and O'Neill's approach made a clear statement that those days were over.

It turns out that the focus on safety also allowed the company to focus on a host of other issues, such as operational efficiency, product quality, and intra-company communications. Moreover, the focus on safety allowed for small wins. For example, in the aftermath of a tragic accident, the company went two weeks without any injuries, and so O'Neill made a big deal of this success. He sent a memo to the entire organization, praising everyone for their efforts and encouraging them to keep up the good work. In one plant, the workers eventually painted a mural of O'Neill and a line from that memo.

Alcoa's focus on the keystone habit of safety positively transformed the company. But how was Alcoa able to identify this keystone habit? More importantly, how can you identify your company's keystone habits?

Duhigg suggests that you "... look for that thing that seems to have both an emotional and a practical element." The emotional component is key because it captures the values you want to express in a particularly evocative way. Duhigg adds, "People tend to develop patterns much faster when there's an emotion involved."

The good news is, when you get people to think about the organizational habits that contain both emotional and practical elements, it doesn't take folks very long to identify them.

"Most companies can tell me right away what their keystone habit is," Duhigg says. "Everyone knows what's bugging them. Everyone knows what's keeping them up at night."

Which, of course, compels me to ask: What's keeping you (or your organization) up at night?

(Photo courtesy of Bigstock: Archways)


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My name is Matthew T. Grant, PhD. I'm Managing Editor here at MarketingProfs. I divide my time between designing courses for MarketingProfs University and hosting/producing our podcast, Marketing Smarts. You can follow me on Twitter (@MatttGrant) or read my personal musings on my blog here.

If you'd like to get in touch with me about being a guest on Marketing Smarts or teaching as part of MarketingProfs University or, frankly, anything else at all, drop me a line.

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