When Strategy Becomes Habit, Change Your Strategy

I recently started reading “Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business” by Charles Duhigg while on a business trip to New York.

It is not my habit to read any book cover to cover – I confess to usually reading two or three at a time – but have had a hard time putting this one down.

What really caught me up was one premise by Duhigg, a science writer for The New York Times, that not only are we creatures of habit but that we do not even realize those habits when they are in play. That is, habits are automatic responses, like an email bounce-back that someone is out of the office.

Duhigg devotes more of the book to how to change habits – once you are aware of them – and I am working my way through that part of the book and through some number of new habits myself.

But all this got me to thinking, for example, about how strategy becomes habit.

It happens easily over time, which is why perhaps it can be difficult to see how a thoughtful strategy has migrated into a reflexive habit.  It can happen, and we are not even aware. Here is a case in point.

How often have you heard an organization involved in a crisis or disaster say in a news conference or a written statement, “Our thoughts and prayers are with those affected by this event …”

You’ve probably heard it dozens of times. I’ve heard it hundreds of times. But then I watch closely to see how others in crisis handle both the issue and themselves. And I hear this phrase over and over again.

When an executive or leader stands up and talks about “thoughts and prayers” toward those affected, it is heartfelt. I have seen up close and personal the pain and anguish of people in these situations.

And this has long been a good strategy to communicate how an organization is responding to a problem, with an outreach to those affected. But it isn’t enough any longer.

Every organization has this statement in its crisis playbook.  Even though people mean it when they say it, the problem is that because everyone uses the same phrase, it is beginning to sound stock.

It was once a good strategy. But now it is just a reflexive habit.

In this case, it is not difficult to make clear that the words are true. Tell people what the words mean by personalizing the actions. For example:

“Our thoughts are with those who are affected by this event. We have established a toll-free phone number that families and friends can call for more information …”

“Our prayers are with those who are affected by this event. We have arranged for counselors to be available to meet with families and friends to talk through what has happened …”

Does that make you wonder about your strategy? Take a look at your strategy and ask yourself if it remains a thoughtful approach, or rather over time has become a reflexive approach.

When your strategy becomes instead a habit, then it is time to change your strategy. 

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