Home/Publications/Best Practices Newsletter/2012 – Best Practices Newsletter/Book Review The Power of Habit—A Challenge for our Traditional Information-Developer Habits



August 2012

Book Review
The Power of Habit—A Challenge for our Traditional Information-Developer Habits

CIDMIconNewsletterBill Hackos, Comtech Services, Inc.

The 14th annual Best Practices conference will be in Monterey, California, September 10th through the 12th. As you probably know, this conference always has a theme and theme book. This year the theme is Habits, and how to manage them. The 2012 theme book is The Power of Habit: Why we do what we do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg. And I always have the privilege to read the theme book and write a review.

Duhigg uses case studies to illustrate his points. These are delightful to read and give the entire book an easy flowing narrative that makes the book very easy reading.

We all know intuitively what a habit is and all of us can come up with dozens or more habits that we recognize about ourselves. All but novice drivers drive their car mostly by habit. We accelerate, brake, change lanes, make right and left turns, stop at red lights and stop signs, and so on. Because our habits don’t involve conscious thought, we can do other activities while we drive, including talk, listen, eat, phone, and also, for some of us, text, although some of these activities may be distracting and leave us unable to meet an emergency that requires our full attention.

Most of our personal habits are good, allowing us to go through the day without having to think about mundane tasks. However, some of our habits have negative side effects. We wish we could break or change these habits, but some habits are very difficult to break. We can all come up with many of our own undesirable habits.

Duhigg, using a number of case studies, demonstrates that all habits have a similar three-part structure—a cue, a behavior, and a reward (Figure 1). We may or may not be conscious of any of these parts.


Figure 1: The Habit Loop

Duhigg uses one of his own bad habits as illustration throughout the book.

He gets up from his desk every mid-afternoon to go to the cafeteria and pick up coffee and a cookie. He may or may not greet some of his workmates. Then he goes back to his desk and continues his work. Although this sounds benign, it causes him to gain weight. Until he does a careful study, he does not know what the cue is or the reward. However, his behavior is to eat a cookie every day.

Duhigg gives many examples of habits. He finds that habits are difficult or impossible to break, but they can be changed. He presents many case studies about how personal bad habits can and have been changed.

He then goes on to habits within organizations. Duhigg uses the word habit very loosely here. Most of us would refer to what he calls an organization’s habit as its culture. He shows how organizations’ habits follow the same routine of cue, behavior, and reward. He gives examples of how habits in organizations can be changed for the good.

Duhigg provides a case study explaining how Alcoa was turned around by changing its culture. Alcoa management made a number of missteps trying to improve the company’s profits. Paul O’Neal was brought in as the new CEO, directed to try to turn the company around. Surprisingly enough, he started with a campaign to improve worker safety. He was successful in changing the culture from one that accepted injuries as inevitable to one in which worker safety was the top priority. Changing this habit resulted in process change that then changed other habits at Alcoa. Many areas of the company improved and the company became profitable again. Making safety a new habit changed how everyone viewed their roles in the success of the company.

A habit change in an organization may result in a cascade of other changes. Duhigg refers to this initial habit as a keystone habit. Changing a keystone habit can result in changes in many habits within an organization.

How does all of this relate to issues within publications organizations?

JoAnn Hackos and I have been in the business of training and advising departments about their processes for more than 30 years. During that time, we have seen massive numbers of innovations in the technology of technical communication. But the majority of publications organizations have continued to develop content in the same way they did 20 or 30 years ago. Habits are very difficult to change and organizational habits can last over many generations of staff. It’s easy to think of habits that have not changed over time in many publications organizations:

  • Writers depend almost exclusively on programmers and engineers for information and ignore users
  • Writers spend a great amount of time formatting
  • Writers continue to organize documentation by features rather user goals and tasks
  • Managers assign work to writers by document rather than by domain
  • Managers fail to measure results or make use of measurements they collect

I could go on and on.

Publications managers can make changes to the habits in their organizations but first they need to look at their own habits. Managers must analyze their own habits to find the cues, behaviors, and rewards. What changes can be made to improve their management?

Managers can analyze other habits that may be writer-wide or department-wide. After doing the research to understand the cues and rewards, managers can work to change the habit into something more productive.

In an appendix, Duhigg provides a four step process for changing an organizational habit:

  • Identify the routine
  • Experiment with rewards
  • Isolate the cue
  • Have a plan

I’ll leave it up to you to read the book to understand the details of this process. An interactive session is planned at the Best Practices conference to learn more about how to change an organizational habit. We’ll break out into small groups and go through the Duhigg process to develop a plan for changing an organizational habit of your choosing.

I look forward to seeing you at the conference in September and especially at the habit change interactive session. CIDMIconNewsletter


Bill Hackos

Comtech Services, Inc.


Dr. Bill Hackos, is cofounder with JoAnn Hackos and Vice President of Comtech Services. He is involved in projects related to information management and process improvement. He designed Comtech’s estimating metrics and continues to conduct key studies into ratios of developers and writers and analysis of the return on investment of single-sourcing projects. Dr. Hackos has focused on the design of graphic user interfaces that are easy to learn and to use. With 30 years’ experience in the computer industry, Dr. Hackos understands how to increase the usability of products.