Sunday, May 13, 2012

Review: The Power of Habit, why we do what we do in life or business

I first ran across The Power of Habit through a New York Times excerpt from the book about How Target knew you were pregnant even if you didn't want it to know. It was an article that was data-science bait, all about big data and the power of analytics. So I stuck it into my wait list for my local library and forgot about it.

I'm all too familiar with the standard non-fiction book spiel: 80 pages worth of content, and 50 pages worth of notes and references to bulk it up with scholarly weight, and another 70 pages of fluff that adds nothing to what you learn. I'm very glad to report that this book breaks the mold. I could not put it down, even when the fluff hit big time, it's not "fluffy" by standards, and you'll learn a lot by reading the book cover to cover.

The opening of the book is rather conventional, covering the neurological basis for habits and how they get formed. But it gets interesting as Duhigg takes you to various applications of that neurology, from how Febreeze was marketed, to why toothpaste became popular and brushing your teeth became a habit. We explore case study after case study about how corporations, marketing types, and people make use of this neurological code in order to get people to behave however they want. There's even a study of how a football coach got his players to break old habits and win games, though I personally feel that the chapter on this is the weakest, because getting the team to finally gel and trust in the coach required an event entirely out of the control of the coach. However, Duhigg redeems himself by pointing out that there are keystone habits that once you establish, actually make changing many other parts of your life easier. (One of them is having good exercise habits)

We then see how organizations form habits and routine themselves in order to operate. The star of this is a pair of case studies: one about a hospital, and one about the subway system in London. The emphasis here is that habits and routine usually develop out of the need to keep political fiefdoms of a large organization out of each other's toes, rather than maximum efficiency, which is what many economists would have you believe. The result is that many important things go unemphasized. What it takes to break these habits and realign an organization is a crisis, whether it is real or imagined. As a result, you hear the axiom, "Never let a crisis go to waste." Unfortunately, Duhigg ends this section with an example drawn from the Obama administration, which did let a crisis go to waste without getting very much out of it.

There is a fascinating case study, however, about Paul O'Neil and how he ran Alcoa, realigning the organization by emphasizing something that few would have considered important to the bottom life: workplace safety. The net result was far beyond expectations, and is a highlight of the book, even more so than the Target excerpt linked above. The insight that institutional habits and routines can be created deliberately rather than evolved out of a need to keep the political types happy is an important one, and organizational builders and startups would do well to pay attention to this chapter.

In any case, by the time you're done with this book, you would have read about Starbuck's training program, gotten an analysis of why Rosa Parks arrest sparked off the civil rights movement, and gotten into the heads of a compulsive gambler and a man who murdered his wife in his sleep. Every case study is interesting, and adds value to the book. At every point you're tempted to put the book down, you're also tempted to say, "Just one more chapter," until you finish it. There's a short appendix on how you can change your own habits, though again, it's really hard so don't expect this to change your life without a ton of work.

Highly recommended.
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