• The Power of Habit, part 6/9

    Today we will be taking a deeper look at The Power of Habit, in the second of our nine-part series on the mammoth hit that spent over a year on the New York TimesBestseller list. The Power of Habit was written by Charles Duhigg. Duhigg was a staff writer of The Los Angeles Times, until 2006; since then he has been a reporter at The New York Times, and was one of a team of New York Times reporters who won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting for a series of 10 articles about the business practices of Apple.

    Chapter Six is a morbid one. Duhigg recounts two tragic events, one in a hospital, the other in a subway station, that cost innocent people their lives. At Rhode Island Hospital, nurses had already struck once and were on the verge of open revolt; while there was an informal system to alert each other who the doctors they could deal with were versus who were the petty tyrants, there was no peach. Doctors were more interested in having power than doing what was best for safety, and it wasn’t until a half-million dollars in lawsuits came down in a matter of months that real change could be approached.
    The whispered hints, the secret color code – these were habits the nurses developed for their own sanity. They became institutional, business habits. Unhealthy ones, just like smoking, but habits nonetheless. As Duhigg says on page 160:
    “There are no organizations without institutional habits. There are only places where they are deliberately designed, and places where they are created without forethought.”
    Meanwhile, disaster-relief workers in the Baja region of California and Mexico have great responses and great victim outcomes, because they practice best habits and know what to do first to achieve the true goal – helping victims, not the developed, institutional goals of “retain power” or “get promoted” as at Rhode Island Hospital.
    Across the pond, Duhigg outlines the series of breakdowns from the accretion of bad habits in the London Tube’s quadropoly of systems and bureaucracies that led to 27 dead Londoners in 1987; it’s the sort of thing other organizations look at and drill into new hires – “we are all responsible for safety” that is a lynchpin of core work training now, but in 1987 was not the norm yet.
    The most striking – and ghoulish – conclusion Duhigg draws is that great leaders seize these opportunities to break down and expel habits, and rebuild new systems from the ground up, just like Tony Dungy. A company with bad habits can’t just turn around because a leader orders it; leaders must find a moment of crisis (or manufacture one) to cause people to examine their habits and break them down to rebuild.
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