Running a small business comes with many challenges. Sometimes just keeping track of the sheer volume of action items on your to-do list can be overwhelming — let alone actually working on them. So how can you make your company run more smoothly so you can get more accomplished and be more successful? One of the keys is in building strong organizational habits.
Organizational habits are the processes, protocols, and ultimately the final behaviors that the personnel of your company perform in response to a given trigger. For example, if you receive an invoice from a subcontractor, that is a trigger. What you hope the response would be is that a series of steps are followed that ultimately leads to payment being sent. However, depending on what steps are necessary and the people who are required to perform them, even a simple activity like this can become encumbered and slow down by your company’s operations.
There are three parts to developing strong organizational habits, and they are based on a popular model for analyzing human behavior. The three pieces of the model are the rider, the elephant, and the path. Respectively they correspond to our brain, our emotions, and the environment. The rider represents higher-level thought, and is responsible for things like setting goals and looking at the long term benefits instead of short-term satisfaction. The elephant represents our emotional reactions, which obviously can and often do overwhelm our rational thoughts, and the path corresponds to the world surrounding us which triggers these emotional reactions.
Using this model then, when we are trying to change a behavior the rider is trying to guide the elephant on a path that slopes upward, because changing our habits can often be difficult. However, sometimes the elephant gets so tired of climbing uphill that no matter how hard the rider tries to steer it that way, it will take the downward-sloping path instead. This happens when our willpower fails because we’ve demanded too much of it, and instead our immediate impulses take over.
In order to keep your organization’s habits from slipping off the path you’ve set, you need to give the rider good direction, keep the elephant from getting tired, and try to reshape the path so it’s not as challenging to walk. Here are some examples for how to do each:
Guide the Rider
The main weakness of the rider is over analyzing a situation. Trying to think of every possible permutation for a problem, the rider winds up paralyzed by the inability to make up its mind about which course of action is the best. One of the best ways to make sure that you and your staff have the best directions is to emulate successes.
Going back to the invoice processing example; if you find that only 20% of your payments are going out on time, instead of looking for a problem in the 80% that were paid late, which could reveal any number of potential issues, look at the 20% that got sent on time and see what went right.
Maybe you would find there’s one employee connected with the prompt payments, so you ask them how they do it and they show you a spreadsheet they’ve made to help them with tracking and organizing their payments. Fixing your late payment problem could be as simple as just sharing that spreadsheet with the rest of the team!
When trying to fix an organizational process, see what happens when things go smoothly and then try to replicate those conditions, rather than looking at all of the nearly endless possibilities for how and why something went wrong.
Encourage the Elephant
At some point almost everyone has had their emotional reaction to a situation overwhelm their logical thoughts before. The problem is that our emotional responses to situations — our elephants — can take over our behaviors immediately and without warning. We don’t have time to think before our senses are overwhelmed and our reactions happen automatically.
So how do you tame the impulsive nature of our emotions? One successful strategy is to reduce the apparent size of the change you are trying to implement within your organization. For example, let’s say you need each of your departments to cut their budgets for next year by 10%. Rather than asking each of them to come up with 10% in cuts across the board, which quickly can become overwhelming and will cause them to get frustrated and give up, you can make the change appear smaller and more manageable so they are more motivated to work on it.
Instead of calling in your department heads and giving them an open-ended statement to make 10% in cuts, you can have a weekly meeting where you will pick a particular line item in everyone’s budget and require them to come in and present what they’ve done to reduce it by 10%. Not only does cutting 10% off a given line item feel much less daunting than trying to do the entire budget at once, but by doing it collaboratively there’s a chance someone who was originally stuck could get an idea from another department that helps them reach their reduction goal as well.
Reshape the Path
Our environments have a larger impact on our behaviors than most people realize. Using the rider and elephant metaphor, it will be much harder to travel up a steep incline than a flat or even down-hill path. This means you should do whatever you can to alter your company’s environment to make it easier for you and your staff to behave in the desired way.
For example, consider a software company whose developers are having issues with their productivity because they are being interrupted. The senior management team could send out a memo asking everyone not to bother the developers so much when they’re working, but chances are within a week things will go back to being exactly the same as they were.
Instead, the company could establish mandated “quiet hours” for the developers at specified times each week, like Tuesday and Thursdays from noon to 3 p.m. The company could even go as far as to block off those times in everyone’s calendar automatically so that no one accidentally schedules a meeting with the development team during that time and give the developers a sign to put up on their doors to tell people to come back after quiet hours.
Compared to sending a generic, unspecific memo, this approach will do much more to change the environment and help the developers focus. First, it sets specific times for when people need to leave the developers alone, rather than just leaving it open ended. Also, there will now be environmental cues when someone tries to interrupt a developer during quiet hours, which will stop them either by showing the time blocked off in their schedules or with the sign on the door.
What organizational habits would you like to change in your company? Let us know, as well as how you plan to solve them using the tips from this post!