The window of opportunity.

Embedding good habits before they regress

I have a bad habit of snacking while I write. Usually, whenever I sit down to pen an article or a book chapter, I start to feel inexplicably peckish and end up ambling into the kitchen. It’s 11am now and I appear to already have finished my lunch.

This habit formed years ago when I found writing quite hard, but even now, after staring at a blank page for a couple of minutes, it kicks in. I become nothing more than a Pavlovian dog with a keyboard.

Over the last couple of months, we, and our teams, have had to create new habits and behaviours out of sheer necessity. We’ve worked more fluidly and collegially; made faster, more decisive calls on big issues; we’ve found new levels of pace, agility and teamwork.

The German-American psychologist, Kurt Lewin, once described a process for change which has gained increasing traction ever since his untimely death in 1947. The first stage is “unfreezing” where the previous processes and patterns of behaviour need to be consciously unpicked, and defences, mindset and inertia proactively overcome. Only then can change happen, in a brief window before the organisation freezes again in a new shape.

For many of us, lockdown provided that unfreezing. Processes and behaviours had to change, so they did. Inertia and defensiveness were overpowered by necessity. Our minds have now been shown that some of the things we thought couldn’t be done, are not just possible, they are now our everyday reality.

But here’s the thing. As we return to some form of normality, as we start going back into our stores, offices and cubicles, we will once again find ourselves metaphorically staring at a blank page for five minutes and starting to feel peckish. Our old habits and behaviours, and those of our teams, will want to reassert themselves and an identical, Pavlovian manner, triggered by the same environment in which they served us well (or indeed poorly) for so long.

If you’ve seen nothing good emerge from the new ways of working that your people have had to adopt over recent months, then you need do nothing – the old ways will return.

But if you’ve seen new potential, if you’ve seen what’s possible, if you’ve recognised that some of those changes have dramatically improved customer choice or engagement, internal efficiency, ways of working, team cohesion, than you can’t afford to do nothing.

You need to take fast, deliberate steps to identify and proactively embed those changes right now. Because if you don’t, your team will be back in the kitchen grabbing snacks and putting off writing yet another article, before you even know it.