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Three Ways to Foster Meaningful Change

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How often do you do the same thing day after day? Probably more than you think. In fact, about 40% of the things we do every day are habits that don’t require any active thinking at all. Perhaps even more startling, some research has found that at least 80% of our thoughts are essentially the same, day in & day out. It seems like we are hard wired to be creatures of habit.

The problem is that some of these habits have real consequences. Have you ever driven home from work only to realize you don’t remember anything about the last 30 minutes?

This happens because our brains are one of the most energy-consuming organs in our body, and therefore we develop habits and routines as a way to conserve precious energy to think about more important things, like what to make for dinner.

In the same way that we develop routine habits, we also develop cognitive biases, systematic errors in thinking that lead to bad decisions and mistakes. An example is called the “confirmation bias,” where we seek out and pay attention only to information that confirms our existing beliefs.

This bias is particularly easy to observe during election seasons. Cognitive biases are universal, they affect all of us, and some of these biases prevent us from seeing the world in new ways and creating meaningful change.

But what has all of this to do with business?

Challenging the status quo, adapting different perspectives, and accepting risk and failure are extremely difficult, but all of these are necessary for businesses to thrive in our constantly changing world. To make this happen it is necessary for individuals and organizations to become agile.

When individuals are agile, they have a level of mental and behavioral flexibility that unlocks their ability to generate original ideas and put those ideas into practice. This leads to organizational agility, the capacity to recognize, create and exploit opportunities in a changing environment. Agile companies foster innovation and evolve more successfully than their competitors by capitalizing on opportunities emerging around them.

TRACOM, an agile solutions provider, has pioneered a method to recognize and overcome the cognitive biases that stand in the way of agility. The goal of the program is to help people develop new habits that will unlock possibilities for their teams and organizations. Here are three examples of techniques to boost positive change in your organization:

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Encourage Your Employees To Share “Ridiculous” Ideas

“It’s just so crazy, it might work.”

A lot of times we are afraid, or more often are actively discouraged from thinking creatively. We become victims to patterns or processes and we follow protocol to avoid risk.

Yet many of the greatest business successes have come from breaking protocol and trying something completely new. But ironically, while many leaders implore their people to think outside of the box, in reality they discourage employees by digging in, becoming more conservative, and forcing employees to follow the old tried-and-true processes.

While they say they want new ideas and risks, they don’t actually make it safe for people to do these things.

Throughout history new ideas have been consistently rejected and ridiculed. But without the persistence of the people we now view as famous innovators, we would be decades behind in terms of medical, technological and scientific advances. So what if you implemented a new procedure of having your employees share their most ridiculous or far-fetched ideas?

Many of those ideas would be crazy and unusable, but that’s okay. The technique works by opening the team up to new possibilities they wouldn’t otherwise consider, and building off ridiculous ideas to create practical and usable ideas. The team will achieve a collective mind shift and consider innovative ideas that otherwise would have been out of their reach.

The key is you have to make this a part of your every-day processes, thus making it safe for people and developing a new organizational habit. If you think this technique seems far-fetched, do a Google search on “salmon cannon” to get a small glimpse of the possibilities this can have for an industry and company.

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Give Yourself Constraints

Lock yourself up! It turns out, people can be inspired by life’s constraints. This might be surprising, as we typically think of creativity or change being fostered from someone who was given limitless resources to achieve the magnificent – think of the popular, but completely untrue, image of Thomas Edison working alone late into the night on his inventions.

In fact, life is full of constraints, and this ultimately is what leads us to be creative.

For example, poems are inherently constraining due to limits on length, rhyme patterns, and so on. Yet these constraints are what separate master poets from amateurs.  A few of you might remember the TV show, “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” an improvisational comedy show where the comedians were given certain constraints to create a funny story.

These constraints were audience suggestions, and because of these constraints, the comedians created comical skits that would never have been thought of without the constraint, and ultimately led the skit to be that much funnier.  Imposing constraints is also the basis of supply chain management, where we are constantly looking for ways to improve efficiency through adding constraints.

These are all real constraints. This technique works by imposing artificial constraints on an issue or problem. For instance, when struggling to write a departmental report, give yourself a constraint, you set a goal that you can only work on it Tuesday morning between 9:00 and 9:20. While this might seem difficult, it forces you to think of how you can complete the report more efficiently.

For example you could decide that instead of the usual three-page detailed review of your department’s efforts, you’ll write a one-page bulleted synopsis.

When we give ourselves and our employees constraints, we can create a new foundation to foster change. These constraints can be unique to your company’s products or services, or can be as simple as growing revenue by 10% using LinkedIn connections, creating a promotional video without auditory words, or developing a new product that is the same size, but weighs 30% less. These constraints can spark new and practical outcomes.

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Define Excellence

Excellence for me is… Most companies have a mission statement which starts just like this and that describes its ideal of success and company culture, but shouldn’t we also define excellence within our specific departments and even for ourselves?

When we hire employees, they typically know their objectives and the requirements associated with their job. But as they progress in a company, so do their responsibilities. In a similar way, our departments also continually progress and change.

A great way to focus people and help inspire a culture of excellence is to explicitly define what excellence looks like. This does not mean regurgitating the mission statement that is plastered in the hallway. It means defining what excellence means for a specific department, or even project, and constantly evaluating efforts against that definition.

Simply creating 5-7 criteria for excellence, even if the criteria seem obvious, can re-energize and motivate your workforce. One tip is to create an acronym that meaningfully captures your criteria and is easy to remember.

Change begins by altering the way we think and behave. Many people assume this is difficult, but it is mostly just a matter of adding new strategies to our daily routines, which creates new and more effective habits.

Casey Mulqueen, Ph.D., is an organizational psychologist and senior director of learning and development at the TRACOM Group.

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