We often hear that 70% of organizational change initiatives fail, despite the time and energy leaders dedicate to the cause. What we don’t hear as often is that it can take two years to know those plans failed.
Because those failed initiatives don’t consider that humans are creatures of habit.
Even when we’re committed to change, we need support. If you’ve ever driven to your old house after having moved somewhere new, you know the force of habit. You might have been driving on autopilot thinking of nothing in particular, because the habit freed your mind to wander. The next thing you know, you’re parked in your old driveway.
Organizational change obviously takes more than one person remembering where to go at the end of the day, but in both cases, old habits die hard. The problem is that leaders often provide support in the form of retooling operating procedures and processes instead of creating new habits that lead to change.
What’s more, different habits require different amounts of time to become second nature. But knowing a few things about how the brain works can help bring about change in weeks, instead of years. Here’s how:
Respect cognitive capacity
Successful change initiatives begin with understanding that our brains can hold only so much information at once. Brains like to conserve resources by operating on autopilot about 50% of the time. That’s why it’s crucial to ensure learning and practicing new habits won’t over-tax the cognitive capacity of your already-busy team members.
One way to make new habits easier to adopt is by connecting them to existing goals. For example, if your organization is focused on supporting employee autonomy, creating the habit of asking “What do you think?” can help create a culture of giving employees a voice.
Be essential, not exhaustive
Knowing now that cognitive capacity is limited, try to find ways to create habits that are simple to adopt. What if, instead of a binder, your new habits could fit on a Post-it note? Many times, organizations go deep into the history of the situation and the expected benefits of the change, but those exhaustive details don’t change behavior and instead can overload the brain and cause it to not be able to prioritize what’s important. By providing only the essential information in clear, easily digestible chunks, employees can focus on practicing habits and not get tangled in minutiae.
Learn one habit at a time, over time
Often organizations seek to enact large-scale changes immediately, but acquiring new habits and making them automatic takes time. Over that time, employees need to practice fitting the new behavior into their everyday lives, reflect upon it, and mull it over with their coworkers.
For example, after teaching clients how to think with a growth mindset, our data show that 88% of participants said they shifted from having a fixed mindset to having a growth mindset one to three times per week. But that doesn’t happen overnight. Instead, by introducing habits individually, and then reinforcing them over time, clients are able to see real change.
While the time it takes to change varies for individuals and organizations, what we’ve found is that instead of change taking years, effective habits to drive change are used for years on end.