Tag Archives: Charles Duhigg

Book Review: The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg

Duhigg , C. (2012) The Power of Habit: Why we do what we do in life and businessNew York: Random House

powerofhabitThis is one of those books by a middle-class middle-aged American where (Gladwell, Gawande, Hertsgaard etc etc). They interview lots of people, they read lots of academic literature, they write very well (with knowingess that plays a game of tag with cynicism, avoiding the C word, generally [but not in the example below!]) and bish-bosh, you have a 250-ish page book. It will contain, in some ratio, some stuff that is banal, much that is obvious (but was hidden), a little that’s tendentious and two or three killer anecdotes that you can use as they were intended or twist to your own purposes.

Here Duhigg is looking at routines that we live by, at the personal level, the organisational level and the social level. He writes fluently, and is good on Paul O’Neill and how his safety culture transformed Alcoa, thanks to unexpected fringe benefits. Here’s his take on O’Neill’s first speech as CEO.

The audience was confused. These meetings usually followed a predictable script: A new CEO would start with an introduction, make a faux self-deprecating joke – something about how he slept his way through Harvard Business School – then promise to boost profits and lower costs. Next would come an excoriation of taxes, business regulations, and sometimes with a fervor that suggested firsthand experience in divorce courts, lawyers. Finally, the speech would end with blizzard of buzzwords – “synergy,” “rightsizing,” and “co-opetition” – at which point everyone could return to their offices, reassured that capitalism was safe for another day. Page 98

O’Neill believed that some habits have the power to start a chain reaction, changing other habits as they move through an organization. Some habits, in other words, mater more than others in remaking businesses and lives. These are “keystone habits,” and they can influence how people work, eat, play, live, spend, and communicate.Page 100

Duhigg is good on how Starbucks helps employees deal with ratty customers, and he’s excellent on the 1987 Kings Cross Tube fire, a story that they should be teaching in kindergartens everywhere. [Here’s a blog post on that.]

His section on Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott should be required for every 21st century facebooker who casually uses Parks and the Black Civil Rights movement to prop up their own sense of self-righteousness and deluded hope for easy social change.

What is missing? A strong sense that we live in a reality distortion field. Power is about making people see just what is needed for them to see. Those who can force others to act (and therefore, usually, ultimately see) in the prescribed ways, end up with the spoils, at least in the short term. Lukes and all that. And the underlying question of what to DO about that is tricky indeed. I fear we are always pack animals, dependent on the tribe for both physical and “psychological” (the term can be misused, anachronistically) safety.

The costs of telling the truth are high, and fall on individuals. It is “safer” to keep schtum, even when everybody knows the ship is sinking, and everybody knows the captain lied.

See also:

Margaret Heffernan Willful Blindness

Geoffrey Martin Hodgson(born 28 July 1946) is a Research Professor of Business Studies in the University of Hertfordshire, and also the editor-in-chief of the Journal of Institutional Economics.

Committee on Food Habits (1941-43)

Of Leviathans, the Tube and #climate crisis.

The last post was about what happens to technologies that challenge the “Leviathan” – of hierarchy, class, habit and the external and internal oppositions. It’s worth a read, and I can say that because there are big slabs of quotations from two brilliant articles (about the 1970s industrial-policy-from-below Lucas Plan, and the present problems of Wikipedia).

This isn’t abstract though. When an elephant can’t tapdance, when people are silo-ed, and refuse to see what they need to because of the turf battles, then 31 people can die.

See these quotes from Chalres Duhigg’s excellent “The Power of Habit: Why we do what we do in life and business.”

The Underground was governed by a sort of theoretical rule book that no one had ever seen or read – and that didn’t, in fact, exist except in the unwritten rules that shaped every employee’s life. For decades, the Underground had been run by the “Four Barons” – the chiefs of civil, signal, electrical, and mechanical engineering – and within each of their departments, there were bosses and subbosses who all jealously guarded their authority. (p. 168)

Duhigg makes the point that for the trains to run on time (and it’s a VERY complex thing), you need there to be a “truce” between groups that would otherwise be trying to jockey for position, and causing havoc. In normal times, therefore, a “truce” can be a Good Thing.

But – and Duhigg also makes the point using a hospital A and E in the United States – when staff are “trained” not to step outside their very strictly demarcated (more than my) job (is worth), then they train themselves not to see things. Things that matter, like burning material at the bottom of an escalator on a November evening in 1987…

The London Underground’s routines and truces all seemed logical until a fire erupted. At which point, an awful truth emerged: No one person, department, or baron had ultimate responsibility for passengers’ safety. (p. 175)

fennell front coverDuhigg then goes on to point out that the period after a disaster, where everybody is shook up, and the ability (or willingness) to defend turf is shaken, is the time where things MIGHT be up for real change. He recounts what happened when the appointed investigator tried – on the basis of interviews with people in the Tube hierarchy who had known for years that “fire safety was a serious problem” – to fix things.

When Fennell began suggesting changes of his own, he saw the same kinds of roadblocks – department chiefs refusing to take responsibility or undercutting him with whispered threats to their subordinates – start to emerge.

So he decided to turn his inquiry into a media circus. (p. 179)

Sometimes, you need the klieg lights to keep things warm. It shouldn’t have to be like that, but it’s the world we live in, eh? But what do you do when things need to change, but the media just isn’t interested, because it’s not something that affects/scares its readers and therefore sells eyeballs to advertisers? What do you do about long, slow, unsexy emergencies in which we are all complicit, not just faceless “barons”? Like, to pick an example entirely at random, climate change?

References/further reading

Duhigg, C. (2012) “The Power of Habit: Why we do what we do in life and business.” New York: Random House

Fennell, D. (1988) Investigation into the King’s Cross Underground Fire London, UK: Department of Transport

Gawande, A. (2011) The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right London: Profile Books