This May 2014, I talked about the formation of new habits at a dinner for the Project Management Institute (PMI), Sacramento Valley Chapter and then again during a live webinar for the San Francisco Bay Area Chapter. Specifically, I shared 5 concrete strategies for forming team productivity habits, while also delving into the behavioral and psychological barriers that affect their success.

Since 45% of our everyday actions are habitual, it’s important to make sure they are good ones! Project managers must cultivate the soft skill of knowing how to lead a team toward productive habits despite the staggering statistic that it takes anywhere from 66 days (on average) to eight months to learn a new habit, depending on the habit’s complexity.

The 5 Strategies for Forming Productive Habits

If you're trying to get your team to adopt productive habits, then here's a very brief rundown of those five strategies:

1.  Lead by example: Define the behavior you want the team to exhibit, then practice what you preach. Your team will follow when they see you do it first, and when the benefits of this new habit are clear.

2. Share the power to change: In spreading the new habit, you may need the help of power users or evangelists — enthusiastic team members who can spread the new habit to the rest of the team and even the entire organization.

3. Apply horizontal or vertical rollout: Split up the habit into smaller actions and smaller parts, so that tiny steps can be made. Small wins can motivate the team to take it the rest of the way, no matter how difficult it may be.

4. Motivate your team: Influence the emotional side of your people, not just the intellectual. Give them incentives to practice this new habit. Make it fun. Be creative.

5. Blend new work styles into existing practices: Leverage any existing habits that are useful when trying to "write" new habits onto the team's repertoire. This makes the new habit feel more familiar and ensures a more natural transition.

If you want a more detailed discussion on the strategies, watch a recorded webinar on this same topic.

Reactions to Change, Reactions to Grief

One particular slide which yielded the most conversation from both groups was the image of the classic curve illustrating people’s reactions to change across time: how any change is first met with denial before spiraling into anger, confusion, depression, crisis, then settling into acceptance, and finally new confidence.
One of the attendees pointed out that the curve “mimics the stages of grief." It does resemble it very closely, sharing four of the five stages in the Kubler-Ross model (denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance) which are the emotional stages one goes through when facing death or the loss of a loved one.

Which makes sense. Learning new habits is a figurative death of sorts: a death to old behaviors and the status quo of the past. In its place, a new habit is born, giving rise to internal friction as the new behavior fights against established habits for dominance.

This provided a fruitful discussion about how implementing a new habit shouldn’t be taken too lightly. It should be done with requisite amounts of sensitivity, all while motivating the team to forge better, more productive, behavioral patterns.

At the end of the webinar for the PMI San Francisco chapter, they polled the attendees and shared the results with me: 96% said they learned something new from the webinar! And 89% said they learned something new from the presentation that they could apply to their current job.

Glad to be of service, PMI!

Cartoon Image Credits: Tom Fishburne on Marketoonist

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