Your project manager strides forcefully through the office. Her plan to overhaul this side of the business has just been approved. There will be radical transformations over the next few months that should see some dramatic improvements. There will be some pushback and probably some resentment. There will definitely be uncertainty. But ultimately a better way of working will arise after clearing out the old stuff.
At least, this is the image of business improvement that’s gained purchase over the past couple of decades. Disruption sits cheek-by-jowl with innovation as the twin watchwords of forward-thinking companies. There’s good reason for that; many of the most transformational ventures and products have arrived swiftly and upended previous ways of doing things.
But that’s not the that only way important changes happen–or last once they do. Companies can make tremendous improvements without adopting sweepingly ambitious projects and policies. You don’t need to upset every apple cart in sight in order to innovate. Instead, and while it’s infinitely less attention-getting, a steady stream of marginal improvements can still lead to big results.
Many inefficiencies emerge from bad habits, and once you understand the way the brain works it’s easy to understand why that is. If a certain way of doing things works a certain number of times, then the chemical reward your brain delivered the first time you succeeded prompts you to do it that way again and again. You’ll feel good about that process, regardless of the results. That’s how habits form.
The problem is changing them when they no longer work. The emotional rewards of stability usually outweigh the cognitive risks associated with trying something new, so many of us simply don’t.
That’s why it often makes more sense to adjust bad habits incrementally. Start by changing small things, allowing those who’ve become hooked on habit to retain most of the mental buzz they get from it. When the new approaches start showing results of their own, they’ll begin delivering new rewards. That improvement will stick, paving the way for the next one.
In many ways, organizations work like brains. Repeated behaviors create certain pathways, just through processes and best practices rather than synaptic connections. Those quickly become paths of least resistance, adding up to a master protocol for the way the business works–the way it thinks.
Whether it’s that office supplies always need to be ordered on Tuesdays or that the marketing budget always grows by 6% each year, these familiar paths simply take less effort to abide by. There’s less mental cost to doing the familiar–business costs be damned.
But like the human brain, businesses can be retrained. Small changes can still bring you closer to big goals. Let them become familiar, turning into new paths of least resistance. The cost of working in a different way–the extra effort involved and the resistance that generates–will be lower.
Over time, improvement itself can become habitual–but only if you do it through small gains.
If change only comes in the form of huge, sweeping, occasional projects, they’ll always be destabilizing in one way or another. What’s more, no one but the project managers of those efforts get to experience the periodic mental buzz of improvement: The project happens, the change is done, and you settle into a new pattern of business as usual. For most team members, the mental rewards will remain associated with a pattern of work, even though that pattern gets a nerve-wracking update every so often.
But by encouraging people to make a steady series of regular, small improvements, you turn improvement into a habit. That can shift your company’s culture tremendously. They’ll start to actively look for improvements. Employees can start to associate the experience of making changes with a sense of satisfaction. The mental reward for making an improvement will overpower the reduced satisfaction associated with the abandoning an old habit.
Soon enough, you’ll wear away the entrenched points of resistance, whether in processes or attitudes. That way changes–including the biggest ones–will be much easier to make.