The Emotional Change Curve is something of a stock in trade amongst people involved in organizational change management, and a model that I have used extensively over the years. The model and its variants are derived from work by psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross and plots a series of emotional reacts that people have when confronted by change – from denial and resistance to exploration and acceptance.

It’s useful. Over the years it’s been a valuable way to help to help broker conversations with people who were struggling to answer the question “Why won’t these buggers just do what we tell them?”. It’s also, it seems, potentially deeply flawed.

I’m of mixed views about this. On the one hand, the scientific method should allow us to move on from theories that on futher investigation don’t hold (the scientific method too often gets confused with dogmatism). But on the other, models can be useful to explore ideas and don’t necessarily need to be true to demonstrate a truth.

Maybe I’m just in denial about the whole thing.

But over the last year or so, especially during my research for Who Shares Wins, I’ve been becoming increasingly intrigued as to whether habit and addiction might be a better way of understanding resistance to change than the Change Curve.

Humans are creatures of habit. As I finish up the last day of a six month full-time assignment working in the same office everyday, I this morning have become aware of how many habits I have formed over that short period: alarm at 6.30; shower dress, leave the house; 7.14 train to Waterloo; a walk to the bus; waiting for a bus on which I can get a seat; get my pass out of my bag as I walk to the office; pop to the coffee shop for coffee and a (usually pork-based) breakfast snack; to the desk; startup the computer; eat breakfast… and that’s before I even start work. I have turned into Reggie Perrin.

Changing those habits takes either immense willpower or a sharp shock (the latter being the end of the contract – I’m available for weddings, birthdays and bar mitzvahs from Tuesday 6th, nudge nudge).

Charles Duhigg’s book The Power of Habit explores all of this in depth. Our habitual behaviours are triggered by some sort of event, which in turn makes us do some sort of set action, which in turn in rewarded by some sort of outcome – my alarm goes off, I turn it off, the irritating noise stops, for example.

When it comes to how we work, and even more so how we use technology to work, we have deeply rooted habits all over the place. Think about the habit cycle of something like your phone vibrating with a new message notification, you check your phone to read the new email, you file it away after reading it. A habit cycle.

Even more dangerous is how some (if not many) of these working habits become addictive. As Nir Eyal’s book Hooked explains, addiction comes when you have a variable reward. Think fruit machines. Think alcohol. Think email: sometimes the notification you get is for something valuable, interesting or just amusing. Most of the time is spam. Eyal provides a blueprint for how to build psychologically addictive software products (which, as an aside, is possibly the most compelling evidence I’ve yet seen of the moral bankruptcy of Silicon Valley).

So when we come to think about getting people to change their behaviours, we might be better to think of how we need to change their habits. How can we remove triggers? How can we get people to adopt new responses? How can we change the rewards? Is cold turkey an option? My research led me to believe that this is a very good way to explain why, despite it being regarded by so many people as a significant “problem”, email isn’t going to be going away any time soon.

When you look a the world through this lens, it’s remarkable how many trigger-action-reward cycles you can spot. Maybe this is a better route to get change to happen than trying to help people through their reactions?

A shout out to Rachel Miller for her tweet this morning that highlighted the Change Curve article, and also to Andrew Mawson at Advanced Wordplace Associates who got me to re-read Duhigg’s book.

3 thoughts on “Changing habits

  1. There are some great thoughts here.
    Make sure we separate the following
    1. The Origin of the change curve in driving change ‘safely’ in our evolutionary past. This is hard wired into human beings.
    2. The original work you refer to is about brevement. Brevement protocols are a function of their culture … The model never worked cross-culturally.
    3. Review the work on cognitive behavioural therapy… That you sort of allude to where habitual belief systems cause thoughts which in turn drive behaviours.

    So in essence if you truly want to understand how to help people change
    1. Understand evolutionary hard wiring from how and why we ‘ see ‘ certain information sets in the physical and social environments.
    2. The impact then cultural soft wiring has on how these systems process.
    3. How habits and habitual behaviours are formed and why.
    Then discuss change. It’s not hard to rewire any persons or organisations behaviour when you truly understand that us humans have ‘evolved’ over millions of years and some of our drivers and hard wired systems date from eras we will never truly understand.

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