Social Habit Loops

Here’s a common scenario in organizations struggling to increase openness and collaboration:

Aaron figures out a work around in a finance system that will save time and money. Knowing it’s value, he emails the information to his manager, Susan. Susan acknowledges Aaron’s innovation in a glowing reply. Aaron continues to use the new process but the organization gains little.

Aaron’s organizational communication system has conditioned him to act automatically and maybe unconsciously. His habit is one where when he finds relevant information, he shares it in a way that provides him a reward. This is the Habit Loop Charles Duhigg wrote of in his book, “The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business“, and I think it holds the key to helping organizations advance their efforts to be more cooperative and collaborative.

Duhigg wrote of the powerful habit loops we all have, claiming that as much as 45% of our behaviors are unconscious habits; from how we brush our teeth to our drive to the office and maybe even how we communicate. The habit loop is defined as having a “cue” or trigger which begins a “routine” to achieve a “reward”. In his book he shared a negative habit story of going to the cafeteria at a certain time each day and buying a sugary treat. Surprise! After much analysis it wasn’t the donut being craved, it was socialization with peers. The reward for this routine of walking to the cafeteria each day around the same time was getting to chat with friends. To get healthier, one just needs to alter the routine so that socialization takes place in a calorie free context.

Companies moving to social platforms usually aren’t factoring in the habits and systems that reinforce these habits. Most come at deploying an ESN either by a large scale roll-out with active C suite involvement or a grassroots, slower start focused on business use cases. Each of these can lead to adoption but not necessarily long-term behavior change which means the business value won’t be achieved.

In the simple organizational scenario I gave above, it’s Susan, the manager, that needs to address her habit loop not Aaron. Helping Aaron to share openly is a tall order, since the reward for his behavior is Susan’s approval and there may be a expectation system at play to reinforce this. Aaron has shared and may want to help others but his system reinforced, automatic action is to send an email to Susan because communication is up and down the silo only. This is very efficient for individual recognition but ineffective for altering company performance as we know. Here’s what Aaron’s possible habit looks like:

My advice – Susan needs to change her routine to change Aaron’s. In an organization our habits are often intertwined; one person’s routine is another’s cue. Susan needs to kindly reject Aaron’s informational emails as part of her routine change. She needs to get this into the open by pushing the email back to Aaron to post in the ESN. It won’t change Aaron’s habit if she posts it for him. If however Aaron begins posting directly on the platform, Susan will see and praise openly. In a perfect world Aaron changes his routine and still gets his reward, Susan is rewarded with a happy, motivated employee and others throughout the organization see the interaction and mimic (it’s Social after all).

Susan’s routine change can alter Aaron’s habit loop:

I realize that the example is small and simple but it’s meant to remind that there is more at play than CEO buy-in and cool tool features. Social is much more about psychology and sociology than technology. In a budding social organization, one person’s routine is another’s cue and it’s often this loop of interrelated actions where lasting transformation can happen like a socially supported chain reaction.

If your organization is an email focused, knowledge hoarding, top down, permission first culture – then examining the human systems and the collective habits working within these systems is the key to change. Systems->Behaviors->Beliefs->Culture.

Chatbots FTW!

A quick thought led to a tweet that Chatbots in our #ESN platforms will be very good for human social interaction in organizations.

Supposedly Steve Jobs, Einstein, President Obama and others maintained wardrobe basics so they didn’t have to expel energy picking out clothing; simple (what to wear) and more complicated (what matches) cleared away. Similarly, chatbots will relieve us of the simple and complicated tasks that tend to eat up our time and mental energy; finding files, scheduling meetings, sourcing content, travel arrangements, ordering common products, and answering other’s simple questions. Chatbots will allow us to be more productive and attentive to problem solving and critical thinking – those things that really move organizations forward, those things leadership desires and employees want to do.

So I’ll go a step further and share that chatbots could be the tail that wags the dog. It’s pretty clear that as consumers leverage chatbots to make their lives easier in the marketplace, this technology in established ESNs will flourish. Can it be over done? Absolutely and probably will at first. Eventually though it will be seen less as a novelty and more as a critical player in proving the value of social technology in organizations – more than any other feature, function or vanity metric. To that last item, it will be very easy to measure how often a bot was accessed and how quickly and accurately it responded to requests. This data will be undeniable, revealing its value as performance support and time saving. Quite simply, our little AI friends could very well move companies to procure social technology and it’s adoption faster then any vendor pitch or consultant strategy ever could. Where then will it leave those helping organizations adopt social tech today? Helping companies change their employee’s work habits, behaviors and ultimately their culture… the really human stuff that only humans can do… for now.

 

Side note: Dion Hinchcliffe picked up on my tweet and shared a great article he wrote in a similar vein. Do take a moment to read. “How Chatbots and Artificial Intelligence Are Evolving the Digital/Social Experience“.

Progressing Backwards

I had an opportunity to attend a session at DevLearn titled “What Does Community Mean in 2017“. Julian Stodd and Trina Rimmer provided both theoretical and practical thoughts and experiences throughout. I was left thinking on this flight home about how today we truly believe anything is possible and that anything can and must happen quickly. But the notion that one can create a community or worse can do so with a click of a button is equally puzzling and disheartening. Many justify this by simply removing key principles of community and altering the definition. In the name of some twisted progress or economic purpose they ignore long held research about nature and human history. Community has gone from being about groups with a shared purpose, building trust through sincere and consistent behavior and necessary interdependence between all members to now being pitched as followers of a Facebook page who periodically “like” a video.

The word community for many equates to a feature on a social platform or the activities of traditional customer service now done online. You may say “it’s just a word” but I say it’s a slippery slope when people try and remake human activities in technology. Fortunately 10,000 years of human development can’t be changed with the advent of Web 2.0. Call me negative, but I celebrate the many failures of social platforms that I read about and the struggles of strategies formed around re-engineered concepts. These failures are usually a result of trying to simplify the complex through bells and whistles and reduce human social institutions to being just words. I have faith that slowly, like the march of evolution itself, our technology will actually come back to meet us right where we are and who we are.

Same Ol’, Same Ol’

I read an article recently about how to improve “engagement” in Facebook’s enterprise social platform Workplace. It was rich with approaches one could use and referenced the idea that in Workplace you need strong “group leaders”. There was nothing wrong with the post and frankly it had decent value but honestly there was NOTHING new here either. Seriously, this post could have been written in 2011 about Yammer or in 2013, swapping the tool Jive into the title. These tips and approaches are still being touted and yet we still hear that 80+ ESN efforts fail!

So, it’s not the tools obviously, they all do the same things. And frankly it’s not that the approaches are wrong, these ones make a lot of sense if your organization is ready. And there’s the rub, most aren’t ready for tech that amplifies and exposes. Simply, the problem resides in the culture and well, “culture” is a nebulous word anyway, everyone says it but nobody really gets it – it’s complex.  I’d argue that what we really mean is habits (individual and organizational). These habit loops (cues->routines->rewards) around communication, sharing and collaboration need to be examined, and this analysis takes time. However I’d start with basic questions at all levels:

  • How do we communicate?
  • Why and When do we communicate? When is it triggered?
  • Where does it happen?
  • How does information move in our organization? How is it “packaged”
  • Is it controlled? And if yes by whom and why?

The issue is really about org psychology and sociology and this needs to be accepted well before technology is purchased. You knew this though, your leaders know this but that’s another habit loop to be examined – Need change -> Buy a tool-> Avoid painful cultural realities.

Silos Are Chosen, Not Imposed

It’s been an interesting week in the midst of the national anthem kneeling controversy here in the US. In two separate circumstances a close and a distant friend on Facebook decided to unfriend or block me when I politely disagreed with their “it’s an insult to the military” stand. It took only my one shortdissenting point for them to “shout” at me and cut me off from their safe, ego-stroking echo chambers. Those within the conversation threads do not know that I was blocked but rather probably assume I whimpered away with my tail between my legs. All within now rest easy as uncomfortable dialog was avoided, loved ones empowered, and complex issues made simple. The lesson: Shout loud, shout angrily, and have the last word.

Little Children

The action each of these people took surprised me, one more than the other stung as it was my childhood friend, but I was left seeing them both still as children; not getting their way (a unified voice of support) they chose to slam the door and stomp away. No matter how you feel about politics or The President of the United States, this was his strategy throughout the campaign and even today; shout, shout angrily, and have the last word. No debate, no dialog, no conversation. Mr. Trump’s behavior is disturbing but it is more clearly a reflection of much of our society.

We Live in Silos
The silo analogy, like the idea of the echo chamber, is an easy one to understand in both life and the world of work. It comes from agriculture – silos of different grains sit spaced across expansive fields, separated, isolated, contained. And although structures exist to contain people in similar homogeneous groups; Social technology where we can choose our “friends” and in organizational departments with unique responsibilities and processes, we do ultimately have the choice to be open-minded and engaging with others… but we often refrain for emotional reasons in one and economic reasons in the other.

A silo mentality can occur when a team or department shares common tasks but derives their power and status from their group. They are less likely to share resources or ideas with other groups or welcome suggestions as to how they might improve. Collaboration in a business culture with silos among teams or departments will be limited, unless collaboration benefits the members of the department. In addition, the members of a silo tend to think alike. They get their power from association with their function and their shared technical knowledge.

– Audra Bianca
Where Difference is Divisive 

I’ve been striving to dissolve these business silos with my work in social technologies over the years. I have helped my own company’s people understand and use technology to find others, find resources and share more openly. The company leadership always welcomes it as they believe correctly that it will help them remain agile, keep people engaged and lead to innovative solutions. However, they quickly realize the organization’s culture stands in the way. No org culture is one where people are shouting however snuffing out difference is still accomplished. Organizations have systems that separate and prevailing beliefs that hoarding knowledge leads to power, failing is not acceptable, and being wrong is a sign of weakness. Their people seek agreement not because it is the right approach but because they don’t want to be ostracized and seen as difficult. So debate is suppressed, monologue is chosen over dialog, and conversation is contained.

Sorry, technology is not going to save us, it only reinforces who we really are. In the end I don’t care about the national anthem debate, I care about social justice and I really care that there is no debate happening. We cannot advance social or even organizational issues without being ego-less, honest, humble and open… which ironically is the natural state of being a child.