Forget About Goals, Improve Your Team With Habits

The end of 2018 is approaching rapidly. Just a few more days and Christmas will be knocking on our doors. And from there on it is only six nights until New Year’s Eve. This is the season of celebrations, but also of reflection. If you are like me, chances are you will be looking back at yet another year past, maybe even feeling a bit melancholy. This is also the time when we will start looking forward at the many opportunities we see ahead of us. We have hopes and dreams and want to improve our life’s. Often, new year’s resolutions are made to reach this.

Although on a different scale, and with less melancholy, we also do this professionally. At the end of the year, we reflect on our organizational goals. Did we reach what we set out to do? Did we overshoot our targets or did we not meet them? Did something go wrong in the process? We also look forward to the year that is coming. November and December are typically the months in which our organizations complete their objectives, targets, and plans for the next year. These goals, targets, and tactics are an organization’s equivalent to new year‘s resolutions. 

Now, anyone who has ever heard me talk about goal setting and Objectives and Key Results know how I feel about new year‘s resolutions. Although I believe firmly in goals and targets in a corporate setting, I don’t believe in traditional new year’s resolutions. Resolutions along the line of “lose 5 kilograms”, “exercise more” and “read 12 books this year” are destined to be forgotten before the end of January. If that is all you do, and you don’t define concrete steps to take, there is a very slim chance of reaching your personal goals. Be honest, how many times have you reached your goals if all you had was a resolution like this? Maybe it is just me, but I’ve never seen it work. Reaching goals is hard work. You constantly have to think about them and what you should do next that might bring you closer to them. This makes it tiring and unattainable if you have to combine it with all the other things that are filling up your life.

However, there is a form of new year’s resolutions that do work. Instead of setting goals, without a plan to reach them, focus on forming new habits. Rather than stating what you want to reach (“Get into shape”), state what you will do that will bring you closer to your goal (“Every day, right after work, I go to the gym for 20 minutes”).  Habit forming resolutions are much easier to achieve. You already know what to do and when. You don’t have to think about it. On top of it, when you manage to keep executing your planned actions for a prolonged sequence, they become automatic. They become real habits. At that point, you don’t have to make an effort to do the things you want to do anymore. They come naturally to you; they’ve become part of you. The good thing is, habits pile up. The moment a habit embeds in your system, you can start adding another one to it.

Probably your team has business-focused goals. You all know what success looks like and what to strive for. This is where you want your team’s attention to be, and rightfully so. But probably the team itself can improve as well. Maybe team members could give each other more feedback? Could the team perhaps make a bigger effort to help junior team members grow? Or should the team reach out to their stakeholders more often? An approach I’ve seen tried, and also tried myself, is to make explicit goals for these kinds of topics. Next to the ones that are already there. This makes sense right? All of these improvements are assumed to help increase the bottom line of your teams so they should be objectives. Sadly, it doesn’t work like that. What do you think will happen when day-to-day operations kick in? These goals are the last to focus on, there is always something more important at a particular moment.

It is not just individuals that have habits though. Organizations and teams have them too. Maybe your team starts with a stand-up every day? Do you have drinks with colleagues every Friday evening? Or does your team collectively start at 8 o’clock every morning? You don’t consciously think about these things anymore. It is just something you do. They are rituals or habits. And habits can be formed.

By forming new habits, teams have a powerful tool to self-improve. Instead of setting bold goals, focus on the behaviors that will help reach those goals. Try to tie your new habit to an existing habit or ritual. It will be easier to root itself into a team’s behaviors that way. For instance, if you want your team to help junior members grow, add a simple question to your daily standup. Every day, ask the seniors: “who will be the contact person for questions today?” After a while, the question will become a normal one to ask. Even better, team members probably won’t even wait for the question to answer it. It’s a small change to introduce, and that‘s why it will embed quickly. As soon as it becomes a habit, you can introduce the next step. The smaller the new task you set out for your team, the easier execution will be, the bigger the chance of forming a habit.

What is it you want to change? Is there anything you want to do to improve your customer service? Why not use Monday morning, right after the team’s coffee break, to have every team member call one customer and ask for feedback? Or maybe you want to get rid of some toxic behaviors. Is the team still accepting Jack coming in late twice a week? Why not introduce a new rule: latecomers buy a cake for the team? Organizations and teams can change their culture, values, and interactions by focusing on forming small new habits. What will be your team’s new year’s resolution? 

Happy New Habits!

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