All posts by George Boulden

“We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.”
Benjamin Franklin
collaborative working

Collaborating, between both external partners and also internal teams, is a key competency for successful organisations. But it goes wrong at least as often as it goes right, sometimes with horrible consequences.

Take, for example, the case of the 2007 joint venture between Swiss watch manufacture Swatch and the high-end jewellery retailer Tiffany. The aim of the collaboration was for Swatch to manufacture Tiffany branded watches that Tiffany would sell through its distribution outlets. All went well until 2011 when Tiffany decided that the watches were no longer a priority for their business and (according to Swatch) started dragging its feet on making decisions; it also stopped displaying the watches at its flagship 5th Avenue store in New York. The relationship soured and in 2013 Swatch was awarded, through an arbitration action, $449 million in compensation.

So, one thing this story tells us about good collaboration is the need to consider the issue of Residual Control i.e. if something unexpected happens, or circumstances alter, who can initiate a change? E.g. is there a specific ‘break clause’ in the collaboration agreement, or an option for mediation? But, of course, there’s much more to building an effective collaboration than having an ‘escape hatch’ built into the agreement.

Defining collaboration…

Let’s start with a formal definition… Collaborative Working is defined as:
‘People working jointly on an activity or project to achieve a common goal. Especially where this involves co-operation between a number of teams, departments and/or different organisations to achieve an agreed objective.’
It comes from the Latin, ‘collaborare’, meaning ‘to work with.’

Do the stars align?

Clearly a key part of this definition is the need for a ‘common goal’. So the starting point for collaboration to work is that there must be a clear and explicitly stated common interest and an agreed ‘vision’ for what is to be achieved. There must also be good quality goals and concrete measures of success. This clarity of purpose plus clear success criteria is the basis for all the other aspects that need to be in place for collaboration to work.

Naturally that common purpose needs to be genuine and sincerely felt by all involved if good results are to be achieved. Sometimes collaboration occurs for public relations reasons, with one or more of the parties just going through the motions, regarding the collaboration as their ‘least worst option’. In these cases, one of the ‘players’ secretly hope it will fail, stall, or be abandoned. All the while they seem to be collaborating they are actually looking for reasons to pull out while, on the surface of things, acting in a reasonable manner. The main message here is that it’s counterproductive to pressure people into a collaboration – as they usually have more ways of sabotaging things than you have ways of getting them to behave! Thus, a key stage in the collaborative process is to check that all the parties are fully invested in a successful outcome.

On a related point, as we’ve seen above, it’s also vital to make sure there is a mechanism to handle situations were those common interests, once genuinely in sync, for some reason start to diverge. (The issue of ‘residual control’.) So, I don’t suppose many people who are about to get married have the idea in their heads that things will end in divorce but anyone who’s rich and/or famous makes sure they’ve got the prenuptial agreement in place before they tie the knot.

You say potato, I say potata – let’s call the whole thing off

Common interests provide the rationale for the collaboration but alignment of organisational culture is the key driver of success. As the old saying goes, ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast’. So part of having a good alignment is that there are no cultural barriers that might block effective working; or if they are there then they are dealt with.

For example, take the case of the World Wide Fund for nature working with Plus Group (an organisation that certifies forestry management procedures as environmentally sound for products sold by its commercial members e.g. Boots, Sainsbury’s, Body Shop etc.) Unsurprisingly the WWF’s focus was primarily on protecting the environment, while Plus Group goals related to satisfying the business interests of its members e.g. getting cost reductions. Plus Group consequently felt that the WFF people were often ‘unable to appreciate commercial pressures’. The way these tensions were resolved was through ‘cultural mediators’. Essentially the WWF Project Managers built personal networks and ‘alliances’ that enabled them to act as bridges between the environmentalist culture and that of the commercial companies that made up the Plus Group membership. They worked to get a shared vocabulary and frame of reference established such that mutual respect could be established and trust built. So, when contemplating a collaboration, it’s worth thinking about who is going to provide that ‘cultural mediation’.

The importance of a ‘collaboration strategy’

The UK’s National Audit Office has commissioned research into Collaborative Working relationships and how they can drive successful programmes. The research looked at nine collaborative projects involving major companies such as BP, AMEC, and Babcock. All the collaborations were between two separate organisations (not internal collaborations) and identified (unsurprisingly) the need for a clear Vision. They also noted the importance of:

  • Leaders being role models for, and actively championing, working in a collaborative manner e.g. sharing information openly, having regular and timely discussion on all matters that affect the collaboration with no, no-go areas or sacred cows.
  • The usefulness of a “no surprises” and a “no-blame” culture to build the levels of trust that effective collaboration needs if it is to succeed.
  • Making sure that the reward and recognition systems used by both parties were compatible with (i) one another and (ii) a collaborative approach. So it’s clearly destructive if the bonus schemes offered by the various parties to the collaboration pull people in different directions e.g. rewards for getting things done in the shortest possible time Vs. (say) the highest possible standard. For example, consider the case of a major UK bank where the Telephone Banking department wouldn’t suggest that customer’s pop into their local branch to sort out some paperwork, even when this was clearly the simplest and best option for the client, because that customer wouldn’t then count as part of their sales figures. So in a world where bonuses mattered a lot to the monthly take home pay and where those bonuses were dependant on hitting sales targets, collaboration was effectively discouraged.

Actively managing the inevitable conflict

Jeff Weiss and Jonathan Hughes in a Harvard Business Review Article on Collaboration propose that it has never been more important to get people to work together across internal boundaries. They also think that most Executives underestimate the inevitability of conflict in doing this.

To underline this point about likelihood of conflict occurring they list three ‘myths of collaboration’:

  1. Teaming workshops can help build bridges between internal teams: Weiss and Hughes say, ”no”, they don’t work very well as the inter-team conflicts typically go beyond the dynamics of day to day teamwork.
  2. Incentives encourage good behaviour: here they make a more nuanced point, (i) for sure poor incentives will kill the collaboration (ii) and good incentives will work up to a point but won’t be sufficient to sustain the collaboration long term.
  3. There is an optimal way of structuring the company to get good collaboration: again they say “no”, and state that, “no organisation chart that will avoid conflicts and lead to greater collaboration.”

They argue that the disagreements sparked by differences in perspective, competencies, culture, access to information, and strategic focus within a company are (a) Unavoidable (b) Actually generate much of the value that can come from collaboration.

So instead of trying simply to reduce disagreements, senior executives need to embrace conflict and institutionalise mechanisms for managing it. They divide these mechanisms into two main areas:

  • Strategies for managing disagreements at the point of conflict.
    For example, they suggest that a formal ‘conflict resolution’ process is put in place to provide an agreed mechanism for nipping disagreements in the bud. And they suggest that coaching is provided to the protagonists, to help them find common ground.
  • Strategies for managing conflict upon escalation up the management chain. This involves requiring that the people experiencing the conflict engage in a joint escalation process. So no one person can trigger an escalation, they have to involve their colleagues in the process.

And, of course, both processes need to be in place and fully utilised if a collaborative effort is to be a success.

So what’s next?

Think about past collaborations you have been involved in. For the ones that went well think about why they went well. For the ones that went badly think about why they went badly. As you reflect on the two experiences, what does that suggest to you about how you can improve your collaborative efforts going forward?


Want Collaboration?: Accept – and Actively Manage – Conflict
by Jeff Weiss and Jonathan Hughes, Harvard Business Review Article


Have a look at Tim Cook talking about collaboration at Apple (3 minutes long):


If you think that you, or your work team, could benefit from our help then you might like to review our in-house half-day master class on Conflict Management


Or if you want to help develop a leadership team take a look at our Executive Coaching Services

And to end with a quote from the well known entrepreneur…

“If everyone is moving forward together, then success takes care of itself”
Henry Ford

An article by Marc Beaujean, Jonathan Davidson, and Stacey Madge or McKinsey, highlights just how important customer facing staff are in making an emotional connection between a client and a supplier’s ‘brand’ and how that connection, that spark, can drive profitability.

The article emphasises just how important it is for customer facing staff, at all levels, to be trained to have high levels of Emotional Intelligence in order to make it easy for people to connect with clients;  especially when the client has a major problem. In the view of the authors, high emotions (caused by a big problem) plus a great response are what really drive customer loyalty. in one study a bank in North America found that a 50% gap between the best and worst branches, as measured by ‘share of wallet’ and customer retention stats, was accounted for by the ability to solve customer problems effectively. Interestingly the research showed that this ‘solving problems effectively’ sometimes meant prioritising  the customer’s need over the banks sales targets. However that customer focus translated, over time, into a larger share of the customer’s banking business.

You can take a look at the full article HERE

And if this topic interests you, you might like to consider how our one-day Essential Customer Care programme could help you and your people build customer loyalty through improved soft skills and better emotional intelligence…


All the best,


“There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” – William Shakespeare, Hamlet

Welcome to the working week

Everyone has ‘stuff’ they need to get done and ‘problems’ that they need to solve. There are small things and minor problems, (like doing the ironing, or getting the kids off to school); bigger things (like completing a major work project, or taking care of an elderly relative.) Then there are things that are fun; things that are not so much fun; things we initiate and things that are thrust upon us by others or by circumstances. At one level these demands on us to get things done can be motivational. For example, athletes tend to break records in front of a large crowd and great satisfaction can be gained from striving to complete a worthwhile task. However, if the pressure to make things happen increases beyond a certain point, and we’ve more on our plate that we feel we can handle, then a stress reaction can occur. In this situation a person can start to feel anxious (rather then energised), sometimes to the point of feeling completely overwhelmed.

Surviving on the savannah

So how does positive pressure to get things done, or handle life’s problems and challenges turn into negative stress? The answer is found in evolutionary biology and the fight/flight survival mechanism. Approached by a lion in the African savannah our ancestors would not survive long if they sat down and debated what action to take, so the brain triggers an instantaneous reaction to either (a) attack the lion or (b) run away.

This ‘fight/flight’ process involves hormones such as adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol being released to facilitate immediate physical action. The hormones generate a series of physical changes aimed at helping to react to a threat e.g. a heightened awareness, a reduction in sensitivity to pain, a quickening heart rate, etc.

The response is triggered both by real threats (e.g. an actual lion) and the possibility of a threat (e.g. a noise in the bushes that might, or might not, be a lion). The way the system was intended to work is that the response ‘switches on’ and ‘switches off’ very quickly in answer to the physical events that unfold. So we run away from the lion, and once safe again we calm down, or, the noise in the bushes turns out to just be the wind blowing through the branches, and we relax.

Failing to flip the ‘off switch’

Problems arise when the physical threat is replaced by the ‘psychological threat’ such as: worry about tight deadlines; criticism from your boss; an argument with your partner; money troubles; or the long term, low level tension created by the daily grind of commuting etc. If the fight/flight mechanism is triggered for these ‘psychological threats’ the adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol causes the body to go into overdrive, but the hormones are not naturally dissipated by action, so the blood pressure stays raised or the mind remains agitated. When this happens fighting or running often translates into unhelpful effects like irritable bowel, dry mouth, stomach ache, eczema, insomnia, angry outburst etc.

The joy of euphoric stress

The type, number and intensity of ‘events’ that it takes to create a ‘stressful’ situation where the fight/flight response goes into over-drive varies enormously from individual to individual e.g. some people would be horrified at the thought of giving a presentation to three hundred people at a conference, while others would be excited by the prospect.

The Canadian psychologist, Hans Seyle, famously identified four ‘zones’ of arousal or stress:

  • Calm – a relaxed, peaceful state of mind
  • Euphoric stress (Eustress) – the natural high that comes from striving to meet a challenge
  • Distress – the sense of ‘worry’, ‘tension’ and (maybe) anxiety that comes from feeling out of control
  • Extreme distress – a sense of panic, helplessness and fear that comes from seeing no way out of a difficulty or problem situation, this can result in a range of symptoms such as fatigue, palpitations, irritability, headaches etc.

The issue for Seyle was to (i) know yourself and what you personally can – and can’t – take in your stride, and (ii) have strategies for recovering quickly from ‘distress’ and ‘extreme distress’ when you get too far outside your comfort zone.

Four strategies for managing stress

Research indicates that there are four, interconnected, strategies for learning to defuse the fight/flight response and so manage stress effectively:

  1. Manage your state of mind; it may be easier said than done, but the idea is to let your problems ‘bounce off you’, like water off a duck’s back (i.e. eliminate ‘worry’ or ‘annoyance’ or ‘panic’ in the face of work overload, or disappointments, or ‘bad’ situations.) Be proactive; be optimistic.
  2. Manage your personal energy levels; stay physically strong and well rested, be active and ‘burn off’ stress inducing hormones through exercise (get a good night’s sleep, exercise, consciously take ‘time out’ for fun activities, have a balanced diet, don’t drink or smoke too much etc.)
  3. Manage your relationships; no one can thrive without some help from other people (a problem shared is a problem halved, actively stay ‘connected’ to family and friends.)
  4. Manage your task list; the chances are that it’s impossible to do everything you might like to do, or that your boss might like you to do! (So prioritise your efforts, say ‘no’ (respectfully) to unreasonable requests, and negotiate workloads/responsibilities.)

Let’s look at the first of these strategies (Manage your state of mind) in more detail.

Manage your state of mind: The ABC of stress management

Albert Ellis argued that experiencing psychological stress involves a three-step, ABC process… Adverse Events; Beliefs; Consequences:

Adverse Event: Something bad happens (e.g. you are stuck in a traffic jam, you hear a sudden loud noise, you are late for a meeting, you argue with a colleague.)

Beliefs: You think about the event to assess if it presents a threat (this happens very quickly and usually at a subconscious level.)

Consequences: You experience feelings and sensations that will vary in type and intensity, depending on how you think about the event (i.e. is the fight/flight response (a) triggered and (b) if triggered, how quickly is it switched ‘off’.)

His observation is that we cannot (usually) control events, but we can (at least to some extent) control our thinking, and therefore we can manage our emotions and thereby take charge of the fight/flight response. So for Ellis you can think about a situation using either ‘junk logic’ (negative, pessimistic, disempowering thoughts), or ‘rational thinking’ (logical, positive, optimistic – but realistic thoughts.) Unsurprisingly, he recommends using rational thinking.

Remember, ‘worse things happen at sea’

So imagine an Adverse Event (say) someone comes back home after a long day at work to find they’ve been burgled. Not a nice experience. At this point they could use, what Ellis would call ‘junk logic’, and think; “this is the most awful thing ever, I can never feel safe in my home again, this is just terrible, I’ve lost some precious belongings and that’s a dreadful, heart wrenching loss and I am helpless to do anything about it.” And as result they’d probably feel anxious and distraught.

But are those thoughts, in this example, helpful or even really true? Can the home really not be made safe – ever again? What would adding a stronger door, or more robust locks or a remote camera do for security? It’s horrible to have had your home broken into but that doesn’t mean steps can’t be taken to stop it happening again. And when all is said and done, no one was hurt or injured. Furthermore, while the loss of personal items (especially those with sentimental value) is no laughing matter, is it really the end of the world? No doubt some things can be replaced with insurance money and for the others you still have your memories, and no one can take those away.

Manage your personal energy levels: Exercise and diaphragmatic breathing

Harvard Medical School, (exercising to relax, 2011) notes that exercise reduces levels of the body’s stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol. It also stimulates the production of endorphins, chemicals in the brain that are the body’s natural painkillers and mood elevators. Endorphins are responsible for the “runner’s high” and for the feelings of relaxation and optimism that accompany many hard workouts. So regular exercise helps to manage stress. They also note that while rapid, shallow breathing is a common response to stress: slow, deep, regular breathing is a sign of relaxation. And it’s possible to control your respirations so they mimic relaxation i.e. deliberately engaging in deep, slow breathing helps to dissipate stress.

Manage your relationships: Hug the monkey

Rick Hanson (the well regarded neuroscientist) notes that in terms of evolutionary biology the brain development occurred in three stages:

  1. Stage one was the development of structures in the brainstem that were highly focused on avoiding danger (i.e. the fight/flight response). This is still the most basic and most sensitive/powerful level of the brain’s functions.
  2. Stage two, was the development of structures in the sub cortex to help seek out pleasure and ‘rewards’.
  3. Stage three was focusing on the need for belonging and love (located in the neo cortex.)

These three aspects of brain function: avoiding harm, approaching rewards and attaching to others need to be integrated and balanced in order to achieve a positive, happy life. Hanson humorously refers to this as the need to: pet the lizard; feed the mouse and hug the monkey.

As for ‘attaching to others’ he notes that in ancient times, membership in a band was critical to survival: exile was a death sentence in the Serengeti. And that today feeling understood, valued, and cherished, directly affects a person’s happiness and effectiveness. So an important part of stress management (or more accurately ‘stress avoidance’) is to seek ‘connections’ to others. Or as Hanson would say, to “hug the monkey, (an admittedly goofy phrase) inside yourself and thus absorb in one form or another that most fundamental human sustenance: love.” So prioritise spending time with people who wish you well and have your best interests at heart. Make sure that your work commitments don’t stop you from seeing friends, spending time with family and catching up with colleagues.

Manage your task list: don’t bite off more than you can chew

It’s a very rare person who can do everything they want to do during the course of a day. Most of us have to negotiate with (i) ourselves, about competing demands on our time and (ii) with the people who will have priorities that differ from ours. This involves saying “no” to being overloaded, but also agreeing how to flex and adapt your schedule in the face of reasonable requests and demands from your family, boss and peers.

Many people don’t fully appreciate that saying, “yes” to one thing effectively means saying “no” to something else. And that ‘something else’ we are saying ‘no’ to may well be a priority work task for us, or may eat away at time we want to dedicate to our home or personal lives. So if we are too accommodating then it may well be that the things we are saying ‘no’ to by default are the very things that we need to do to take better care of ourselves and/or hit our personal work targets.

Of course the irony is that if we agree to do more than we can handle, we probably don’t do it very well, and we may also end up exhausted (or angry) for having to do something that intrudes into our personal time. This is why finding out exactly why people are asking for things, and then negotiating a way forward that makes sense to you and to them is so important to managing stress. So mastering the delicate art of saying no, is a key life skill.

Stress and leadership: my brother’s keeper

If you are a leader, or a people manager, then, in many countries, you will have a legal responsibility to proactively ensure the welfare of people reporting to you, and that includes monitoring their stress levels. In the UK, for example, the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 and Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999, make employers responsible for ensuring the health, safety and welfare at work of their employees. Legally, Board Members must ensure that a Health & Safety policy is in place and monitor factors that might suggest there is a problem with stress-related illness in the business, e.g. high rates of absenteeism.

Managers should be on the lookout for common signs of stress in employees, including (but not limited to)…

  • Taking more time off than usual
  • Not taking normal breaks (e.g. lunch), working long hours
  • Increased irritability, poor concentration, reduced productivity (e.g. making mistakes)
  • Becoming withdrawn, ‘moody’ or over-reacting to what others say
  • Showing physical signs of fatigue e.g. yawning, rubbing eyes, sweating, or sallow complexion

So what’s next???

  • Reflect on which of Seyles “stress zones” you are in and what that might tell you about how you might try to adjust your behaviour to spend more time in zones one and two.
  • Consider just how optimistic you are. Do you need to adjust your thoughts to be more of a “glass half full” type of person? This doesn’t mean pretending that things are Ok when they aren’t, but it does mean looking at what’s good about a situation and taking the initiative to improve things where possible.
  • Try reading, The Relaxation & Stress Reduction Workbook
    by Martha Davis, Elizabeth Robbins Eshelman, Matthew McKay and Patrick Fanning
  • Learn more about Breathing Excercises, a three minute video – Diaphragmatic Breathing Technique

If you think that you or your work team could benefit from our help then take a look at our half-day master class on stress management.

Or maybe our ‘one to one’ executive coaching services.

Or give us a call on 0844 394 8877 (UK) or  +44 1788 475 877 (international) or email us at and we’ll be happy to discuss how we can work with you.

And to end with a quote from the well known US physician Dr. Chris Feudtner,

“90% of life is about remaining calm.”

“Behaviour is the mirror in which everyone shows their image”
airliner cockpit

A habit is a routine of behaviour that is repeated regularly and tends to occur subconsciously. The reason habits matter is that once established, they are more or less automatic, which makes for great economy of action, i.e. it becomes very easy to act in a particular way. So, habits make us highly efficient – we can act without having to engage in conscious thought or to undertake time-consuming self-analysis. With the right set of habits we can succeed at any number of things more or less on autopilot!

If you don’t have a ‘habit’, each time there is a beneficial (but potentially challenging) thing to do, you have to make a conscious act of will to do it. This involves expending emotional energy on the decision process, rather than allowing the habit to take the strain. For example, “I take the stairs rather than the escalator – because that is what I do – that is my habit – that is who I am – I do not allow myself the choice to do otherwise – ever.” (Note that the rationale for taking the action is no longer there – it is not needed. All that is needed is obedience to the habit.)

There is, of course, a ‘dark’ side to all this. The unconscious, spontaneous aspect of habits can potentially make it easy to do things that benefit us (getting things done, exercising, meditating) but it is just as easy to repeatedly and unthinkingly do things that harm us (smoking, procrastinating, lethargy). The neurological process that creates habits does not distinguish between good and bad; it takes an act of conscious will to promote beneficial ones and extinguish the harmful ones. Sadly, as most of us know, old habits are very hard to break, and new habits are very hard to form because the behavioural patterns we repeat are imprinted in our neural pathways, so mastering our habits takes perseverance.

Habit loops

Charles Duhigg in the The Power of Habit notes that habits have a three-part structure:

  1. A Cue: A ‘signal’ that triggers the start of the behaviour (e.g. putting your running shoes by your front door; you see the shoes and think ‘run’!)
  2. A Routine: Engaging in the behaviour (going for the run)
  3. A Reward: The pay-off from engaging in the behaviour (the rush of endorphins that comes from doing exercise, enjoying the sense of achievement that comes from completing a task).

The best way to remove a bad habit is to replace it with a good one. So, the first step is to notice what ‘cues’ a negative behaviour (e.g. feeling bored), which initiates a ‘bad’ routine (e.g. eating a chocolate bar) and then change cues and/or routines to improve the situation. E.g. for the cue of ‘feeling bored’ we might adopt a new, more positive routine e.g. surf the Internet, phone a friend (rather than eat chocolate). Of course, it takes a conscious effort to establish the new habit; making improvements takes will power! In fact, Lally et al. (Journal of Social Psychology 2010) found the average time to establish a ‘habit’ was 66 days, with a range of 18–254 days.

Keystone habits

In terms of developing new habits one big idea is the notion of a ‘Keystone Habit’; these are ‘super habits’ that influence behaviours in a wide range of situations (i.e. it’s a habit that affects your entire life.) Keystone habits can be identified by asking the question: “What’s the one thing, which if I did it consistently, would have the most benefit in my life?” E.g. exercise more, eat better, stop smoking, improve my sleep hygiene, show more affection to my partner, embrace opportunities, do public speaking etc. And then frame that ‘topic’ as a specific goal that can become an automatic routine e.g. “I’ll walk 10,000 steps every day.”

One example that the research highlights as a keystone habit is exercise, because typically someone who keeps fit also eats reasonably healthily and sleeps soundly. Another is meditation. Research from the UCLA Laboratory of Neuro Imaging suggests that people who meditate show more gray matter in certain regions of the brain, show stronger connections between brain regions and show less age-related brain atrophy (i.e. meditation can make your brain bigger and faster). So, one ‘keystone habit’ for people who commute on public transport could be to take a few minutes on each journey to close their eyes and meditate. Or for people who drive to work it might make sense to leave a little early, park and spend a few minutes in the car meditating before going into the office.

Bright lines and rituals

In legal contracts there is the concept of having ‘bright lines’, or clear, unambiguous boundaries; so it is obvious and unarguable whether or not something has, or hasn’t, been done. For example ‘stay hydrated’ or ‘get more sleep’ are fuzzy lines, while ‘drink a litre of water a day’ or ‘go to bed at 11pm every evening’, are clear, bright lines. In setting new habits it really helps to adopt bright lines. And, as far as habits as concerned, the brightest line is if you agree to do something (even for just a few minutes) each and every day, as opposed to, say, twice a week.

Rituals (highly specific behaviours, done at precise times of the day) are one type of ‘bright line’. They are a highly effective way of avoiding work overload as they can be used to ‘programme’ in breaks, pauses, and ‘re-set’ moments into the day. For example, a ritual might be that you go to bed at the same time every night so that you consistently get enough sleep, or exercise as soon as you wake up to be sure you get exercise, even when you don’t feel like it. One ritual that’s commonly taught as part of a time management programme (it’s certainly part of our training) is at the end of each work day to write down the most important task to accomplish the following day; something you’ll do as soon as you get back into work in the morning i.e. before doing anything else. Or you could take advice from Thanh Pham, the productivity blogger, and develop a ritual around “clearing to neutral”, by which he means clearing up at the end of any activity before starting the next task, e.g. put away equipment, or files, or wash up the pans, so that everything is ready to ‘go’ the next time you start that task.

Micro actions (too small to fail)

The smaller the daily goals or challenges you set for yourself when conditioning a new habit, the easier it is to keep going past the 66 day mark, when it’s likely to have become automatic and unconscious. So Stephen Guise in his book Mini Habits suggests that you make your goals ‘stupid small’, so small that it’s almost impossible not to do it. Of course the idea is that if you start with just one tiny step, that gives you the impetus to do much more than that. An example in the book, for the keystone habit of exercise, is that rather than specify that you’ll do 30 minutes of exercise each day, just commit to doing one ‘press-up’, or one ‘sit-up’, or one minute of stretching. Yes, just one. Once you’ve done that one you can then, if you like, do ‘bonus exercises’. He argues the key is to develop momentum for making a change and that means making things ‘too small to fail’. So, don’t say you’ll do ten sales or marketing phone calls each day; just commit to doing one. Don’t say you’ll start reading for pleasure ten minutes each evening; just commit to one minute. Don’t say you’ll become tidier and better organised; just clear out one shelf, or one desk drawer. Don’t say you’ll manage your team better; just give one piece of feedback (positive or constructive) each workday.

Habits that drive competitive advantage

One way of using ‘habits’ is to drive corporate culture. This is best done by choosing one simple, but core (keystone) behaviour and ask all employees to make it part of their normal routine. So, Lisa Earle McLeod in her 2012 book Selling with Noble Purpose, argues that driving sales revenue involves having a focus on what your product or service can do for customers (a Noble Sales Purpose). For McLeod this involves thinking about three issues:

  1. How your product helps customers
  2. How you’re different from your competitors
  3. Your emotional commitment to helping customers
    (why you care about what you do).

And once that focus is in place she suggests identifying a specific behaviour that supports that ‘purpose’, and this ‘habit’ should be something that:

  • Takes less than a minute
  • Everyone in the company can do
  • There are no excuses for not doing it

For example, Boston University have a policy that no member of staff should ever walk past people on their campus who are looking at a map, or appear to be visibly lost. They should stop, introduce themselves, and ask if they can help. This single policy sends a message to everyone, both inside and outside the organisation, that the culture of the University is to be helpful, and that the institution places a high priority on interpersonal interactions. This simple ‘habit’ encourages employees of every level to personally connect with students and their parents (customers), and empathise with them.

A focus on Safety in the workplace can be a ‘keystone habit’ that can drive profits and productivity. When Paul O’Neil became CEO of Alcoa in 1987 investors were surprised at the emphasis he placed on safety and ensuring ‘proper procedures’. O’Neill changed the company’s operation structure so that any time an employee got hurt, the senior members of the department had to deliver a plan to O’Neill showing how the injury would never happen again. Executives who didn’t embrace this keystone habit were fired or not promoted.

The knock-on effects of forcing people to pay attention to details, and making improvements that this focus on a safety culture engendered, saw costs fall, and quality improve. In fact by the time O’Neill retired in 2000, Alcoa’s profits had quintupled.

The seven habits

One of the best-known books on effective habits in business, and in life, must surely be Stephen Covey’s (1932-2012) multimillion selling;
The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (1989). It could be argued that most of the ‘success behaviours’ that Covey lists are not habits in the technical sense of the term as they are broad concepts, and insufficiently ‘routine/automatic’. But they can certainly form the basis for a series of more specific habits and rituals that will drive good performance and create a sense of fulfilment.

The seven habits are:

  1. Be Proactive – Take responsibility for how your life is; make choices and take action to make things how you want them
  2. Keep the End in Mind – Define meaningful goals; be clear about what you want (Covey calls this the habit of personal leadership – having a focus for your actions)
  3. First Things First – Organise your time and energy around executing your key priorities
  4. Think Win-Win – Look for mutual benefit in all interactions; cooperation with other people tends to get better results than trying to ‘beat’ them
  5. Seek First to Understand and Then to be Understood – Listen closely to what people are saying and when you’ve fully understood their view have your say (diagnose before you prescribe)
  6. Synergise – Cooperate by respecting differences and build on strengths; use teamwork to do much more than you could accomplish alone
  7. Sharpen the Saw – Continuously look to strengthen your body, heart, mind, and soul

So what’s next?

Record the habits you already have, and how they work for (or against) you. As habits (once formed) are automatic it’s useful to take the time to consciously examine what you’re doing and assess the pro’s and con’s of your set routines.

Ask yourself: “What’s the one thing, which if I did it consistently, would have the most benefit in my life?” And create a ‘bright line’ goal based on your answer.

Read… Smart Change: Five tools to create new and sustainable habits in yourself and others, Art Markham (TarcherPerigee, January 2014)

Watch… this three minute clip of Charles Duhigg giving an overview on ‘the power of habits’…
See video clip

Consider sending your managers on our half-day workshop on Practical Time Management as a great way of helping them adopt habits for improved personal effectiveness…
View Practical Time Management

If you’re a senior executive maybe a ‘one-to-one’ executive coaching session would be a useful option for helping you develop some good habits, rid yourself of some bad ones, and maybe identify a ‘keystone habit’ for the organisation as a whole?
View ‘one-to-one’ executive coaching

And remember…

“Sow a thought, reap an action; sow an action, reap
a habit; sow a habit, reap a character;
sow a character, reap a destiny.”
The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People