The Power of Habits

'We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.' -- Aristotle 

It is an easy to read book with useful insight into the peculiarities of frail, powerful and sometimes, misguided, human behaviour powered by habits.

Habits are powerful. This book brings to surface the neuroscience behind habits and what makes them so powerful at individual, organisational and social settings.

It is an easy read, with useful application in day-today life.

On a organisation level, though, it made me realise that in this age when data and knowledge is omnipresent, it cannot be the foundation for competitive advantage. This is akin to the adage - 'If everyone is special, then no one is'

The greatest leaders, in my opinion, will emerge from a scarce pool of individuals endowed with an innate understanding of human behaviour far ahead of research in psychology. Their business manoeuvres will likely carry an aura of mystery or ridicule for a long time while our knowledge of human behaviour catches up. It is likely that they will produce excellent results over long period of time and as a result, become the subject in the case studies of prominent business schools. 

This, however, is not an argument against acquiring core competency in one's chosen field. That's a given, proficiency is the entry price to business arena.

In 1987, Alcoa - Aluminium company of America, was in dire circumstances when Paul O'Neil, former government bureaucrat was appointed the CEO of the company. His job was to turn the fortunes around the ailing steel manufacturer. Given his bureaucratic government background, most people believed that the board had committed a grave error. Their fears came true during his first speech where he laid his strategy - “I want to talk to you about worker safety. I intend to make Alcoa the safest company in America. I intend to go for zero injuries.” Not a single word was mentioned on turnaround strategy. 

By the time O’Neill retired in 2000, the company’s annual net income was five times larger than before he arrived, and its market capitalisation had risen by $27 billion.

O’Neill figured his top priority, if he took the job, would have to be something that everybody—unions and executives—could agree was important. He needed a focus that would bring people together, that would give him leverage to change how people worked and communicated.

The key to protecting Alcoa employees, O’Neill believed, was understanding why injuries happened in the first place. And to understand why injuries happened, you had to study how the manufacturing process was going wrong. To understand how things were going wrong, you had to bring in people who could educate workers about quality control and the most efficient work processes, so that it would be easier to do everything right, since correct work is also safer work.

This stroke of insight was well thought out, he wanted to be reported any injury with 24 hours, no exception. This meant layers of bureaucracy that impaled the organisation for years had to be broken down.

The most important aspect of his strategy was his insight about human behaviour. What would it take to align everyone towards the vision of the organisation.

Everybody joined hands since it was beneficial for everyone - I believe this was ingenious.

As always, would love hear your thoughts/opinions below.

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