“Yes, they do and like many things, your greatest strength can also be your greatest weakness.” I could see Muriel’s face scrunch up, mixed in resistance and curiosity.
“Competence requires a set of habits. Habits help us, habits hurt us. Think about a new problem that must be solved, like that change in production last month.”
Muriel winced. “I know, I know. We practiced hard on producing that left element. We were really good at it, and it was difficult. Then we got the machine. Using the machine was even harder, so my team kept doing it manually. Someone even sabotaged the machine configuration that kept it out of the loop for two days. All in all, it took us three weeks to become competent on the machine, when it should have taken only five days.”
“Habits can sometimes be a powerful force in resisting change. Habits are grooves in the way we think. They can be helpful, but sometimes, we have to get out of the groove and it’s tough.” -Tom
“How are habits connected to competence?” I asked.
Muriel looked at me and remembered. It was a short trip down memory lane. “When I first became a manager,” she started, “I was awful. I thought I was such a hot shot, walking around telling everyone what to do. Within a couple of weeks, productivity in my department was at an all time low, and I couldn’t figure it out.
“So, I started asking questions. Instead of telling my team how to do the work more efficiently, I began asking them how they could do the work more efficiently. I didn’t do it very often, but when I did, remarkable things happened. Over time, I got better at asking questions. Practice. Practice makes permanent. Now, asking questions is a habit.”
“So, describe the competence connected to the habit?” I pressed.
“The competence is challenging my team. Challenging them to higher levels of performance, productivity, efficiency.”
I look for those routine, grooved behaviors that support the required behaviors in the role. If a behavior requires a Herculean effort to comply, it is likely that sooner or later, the agreement will be broken. If the behavior is supported by a habit, it is likely I will gain commitment to that behavior.
We think we choose our success.
We do not.
We choose our habits.
It is our habits that determine our success.
“I understand,” Marietta replied. “I got it. The way you explained it, now I know what to do.”
“You understand, in one part of your brain, but in the heat of the day, another part of your brain will want to do what it has always done,” I observed.
“But, now, I know what to do differently,” she protested.
“And, when you walk into the situation, that other part of your brain will take over and you will fall back on your habits, your grooved behaviors, even if they were not successful.”
“I hope that won’t happen,” Marietta flatly said.
“The only way to act in your new understanding, is to practice, practice and practice, until your new understanding becomes a habit. Only then will you be able to execute in a new way. We think we choose our success, but we don’t. We only choose our habits and our habits will determine our success.”
You said in your workshop that we should interview for habits. I agree that is important, but exactly, how do you interview for habits?
Do you know someone who always shows up late for everything? You get annoyed and suggest strategies to change that habit. “Set your watch 5 minutes ahead. Get out of bed a half hour earlier.” Yet this person is still late, every time.
There are habits that we have that contribute to our success and habits we have that detract from our success. Habits are those grooved and practiced behaviors that a person uses to solve problems and make decisions. Habits are a shortcut to problem solving and decision making. Habits create repeated conditions that contribute or detract from success.
But how do you interview for habits. When I examine the critical role requirements, I identify what habits would be valuable, specifically the repeated behaviors that would be valuable. Then interview for those behaviors. Let’s take showing up early as a habit.
Tell me about a project where it was important that the team start together each day?
What time did the team arrive?
What time did you arrive?
Why was it important that the team start together?
Tell me about a routine meeting that you were a part of?
How often was the meeting?
What was the purpose of the meeting?
What time did the meeting start?
What time did the team arrive?
What time did you arrive?
What happened when team members were late?
What happened when you were late?
What did you do to make sure that you were on time?
It is important to listen to how the candidate describes the behaviors of others as well as their own behavior. Their attitudes toward being late will be revealed.
I would rather be a half hour early than one minute late.
“What habits are required for this role you are designing,” I asked.
“Habits?” Robyn replied. “This is a technical position, lots of things to know. I figured I would spend most of the interview, asking questions about how much the candidate knows about the technical part of the job.”
“I am certain there is technical knowledge that is very important to know, and I assume you will spend a good portion of the interview assessing that. But what about habits? What habits are required for this role?” I repeated.
“What do you mean, habits?”
“It’s nice to understand the technical part of the role, but competence will require specific behaviors in solving problems and making decisions. We all have habits that contribute to our success, we all have habits that detract from our success. Habits are grooved behaviors, repeated time after time. Faced with difficulty or a challenge, we often fall back on our habits, even if our habits were unsuccessful in the past. What questions will you ask about habits? What habits are required for this role?”
Those who attend my workshops know there are four areas connected to work that I interview for –
Interest, Passion (Value for the work)
Yes, there are required behaviors in any role. Some you contract for, like showing up in the morning at an appointed time. There are also required behaviors connected to culture.
And there are habits.
Whenever I look at a role, I examine the critical role requirements and identify the habits that would support those requirements. I am looking for grooved, routine behaviors, repeated behaviors that contribute to success in the role.
There are some people, given a complicated task, who will charge ahead in a flurry of activity. There are others, who, as a matter of habit, stop and plan, before charging ahead. Some roles require charging ahead, some require planning. Which habit supports the work in the role?
We think we choose our future. We don’t. We choose our habits and our habits determine our future.
“Where we drop the ball is follow-up.” Nathan shook his head from side to side. “We are pretty good at setting goals, but as soon as we’re done with that, life goes on and we forget all the hard work and time we spent planning.”
“What habits do you need to create,” I asked.
“What do you mean?” Nathan looked puzzled.
“Follow-up is not just a ball that gets dropped. As a management skill, it is a way of life. I always look for habits. What are you not doing as a routine that stops you from following up?”
It was like a smack in the forehead with a beer can. “I see where you are going with this,” Nathan said, still shaking his head. “We usually have a short huddle meeting every Friday to follow-up on the promises we made to ourselves. Ever since the holidays crept up, we just stopped having the meetings.”
“What’s on your schedule this Friday?” I quizzed.
Nathan was quick to respond, “I think we should have our regular Friday huddle meeting.”
Sometimes effectiveness has nothing to do with being brilliant, but only in continuing to do the things that work.
How do you un-do some internal promotions that probably shouldn’t have happened? The person is just not effective in their new Stratum III role?
Troubleshooting effectiveness in a role can be traced to one of these four factors –
Interest (Value for the work)
I rely on the manager’s judgment to determine which of the factors may be in play. In my Time Span workshop, I describe a team member with the following characteristics –
Worked for the company – 8 years
Always shows up early, stays late
Wears a snappy company uniform (belt around waist, cap on straight)
Knows the company Fight Song
Makes the best potato salad at the company picnic
And yet, is under performing in his role. Put that list against the four factors and I arrive at capability mis-matched for the role. To do a thorough inspection, I would examine each of the Key Result Areas in the role to see where the underperformance occurs. It is likely there are parts of the role that are done well, and parts where we observe underperformance. The mis-match is likely to occur on those longest Time Span task assignments.
In your question, you describe a Stratum III role. I would examine each of the KRAs and task assignments to see which is the culprit and modify that specific task assignment. The modification might be to break the longer task into a series of shorter tasks with more oversight, or to shift an analytic step to another resource.
All of this can be avoided by assigning project work to team members BEFORE they receive promotions. Successful completion, evidence is what I look for, not hopes and promises.