When I discussed a variety of professional literature in general and (safety) culture in particular with a colleague/friend a while ago she mentioned/recommended this book to me, so when I came across it quite by accident at the Ark bookstore at Gardermoen (yup, here we are once more) I gave it a chance.

The book is subtitled “Why we do what we do and how to change” and initially I was a bit sceptical because I feared it might be one of those typical self-help books. And in part it has a hint of that - if only because it is very hard not to start thinking in the lines of “what habits do I have myself and what habits of mine ought to change perhaps…”. In case you are wondering, yes, the book indeed gives some advice how you might go about. There is an appendix that is a rather simple guide for the reader how the idea’s in the book might be put into practice. One habit of mine is that I highlight and annotate professional literature which I feel enhances my understanding of the matter, and makes it easier to do these reviews and summaries for your (and my) benefit. Long live habits! At least some of them…

What struck me at first is the difference between a scientist’s and a journalist’s style of writing (once more, actually, but I haven’t written this down before). Journalists have a habit (pun intended) of taking a much greater people’s perspective and plays much more on emotions than a scientist. It’s very much the same like when you watch these Disaster or Air Safety Investigation programs on Discovery or National Geographic channel which often start something like “On January 4th, 30 year old Jane Doe is about to enter flight 123 with her 5 year daughter Emily to visit her grandma in London” even if this people-part of the story is totally unimportant to what happened causally. Duhigg does quite a bit of this even though he tells anecdotes that are relevant to the point he makes, of course. But let’s take a look at the contents…

The book has three parts: the first deals with individual habits, the second with organizational habits and the third with habits and society. If you are short on time and just want to familiarize yourself with the basic ideas I would say you can just stick to the first part of the book that discusses the principle ideas - or read the 12 page appendix for that matter. If you want to get a bit more out of the book, you might (like me) want to reflect over some related questions like the difference and/or connection between habits and heuristics and between habits and culture. I’m not going to answer these, but have to comment that the book does discuss elements related to the latter - not all that surprising since the book was mentioned to me in relation to culture…

The first chapter introduces the main idea, namely the Habit Loop which is made up from three elements: a Cue, a Routine and the Reward. Duhigg doesn’t mention this, but it looks incredibly like the ABC model of Activators, Behaviour and Consequence that we know from other writers. The way things are described they are sounding awfully behaviouristic, especially in the second chapter where advertisement guru Claude Hopkins gets a lot of spotlight (I leave it to you to decide if this is justified or not with regard to toothpaste) and basically declares that routines totally depend on the right cues and rewards. I would say, yes, but things are a bit more complicated sometimes. Anyway, Duhigg adds a third element to power the routine/habit, namely Craving. Which is another interesting opportunity to reflect, because how can we combine the concept of Craving with safety… Just take something rather common as that people in companies ‘habitually’ not report incidents. How to define a habit-loop there with elements like Cue, Reward and Craving. Just do the mental exercise!

The third chapter adds the final element to the well-functioning habit loop: belief. I’m sorry to say that this chapter isn’t one of those that really caught on with me. Loads of stories about American football (nobody on this side of the Atlantic even knows vaguely what that game is about) and loads of emotions that for a moment make me wonder if I’m suddenly in an episode of Oprah.

Anyway, now we have the basic elements of habits in our luggage: Cue, Routine, Reward, Craving and Belief and we know that unless you deliberately resist it a habit will run its course, but if you are aware of routines you can change them and you can change them by replacing one routine by another using the same cue and more or less the same reward. On we go to the next part of the book that deals with organizations.

The fourth chapter contains a lot of safety because it uses the story of Paul O’Neill and how he transformed Alcoa by focusing on ‘keystone habits’ (habits that have the power to start a chain of changes happening). While I’m sceptical about the stuff about “zero accidents” I think the story is interesting to see how a company chose safety as the focal point to transform its culture and improve production (and the bottomline!) as a consequence. I think that the keystone-habit thinking also relates nicely to the approach of Andrew Sherman of “changing culture one person at a time” - or in this case perhaps “one habit at a time”. (By the way, the Alcoa storyline in this chapter is alternated by that of swimmer Michael Phelps that reeks a bit too much of motivational self-help and can safely be skipped as far as I’m concerned).

The next chapter sees me struggling a bit. The author describes willpower as a habit and I’m honestly having difficulties seeing it that way. Intuitively one will understand that willpower and habits are related, but that doesn’t make them the same. I wonder if the author doesn’t confuse willpower with preparation and increasing one’s threshold for stress. One could link some of the organizational habits discussed here to High Reliability Organizations, but the author doesn’t do this here (he did briefly in the previous chapter). Also the Travis storyline is a typical example of the aforementioned journalist-writing that plays the human element card a bit too un-subtle.

More interesting then is Chapter 6 that discusses toxic and otherwise dysfunctional/destructive cultures by the examples of medical errors in an American hospital and the King’s Cross fire. Much to pick from this chapter for safety professionals and a recommended read all around. Also in the light of understanding that organizational habits that have grown over the years (in this chapter often called ‘truces’ between various units or levels in the organization) may have rational backgrounds, but in a certain context can blow up in your face. One lesson here, by the way, is that a crisis may be beneficial for improvement and that sometimes prolonging or making more urgent of a crisis is the only way of getting to change.

The final chapter in Part 2 of the book is about prediction of customers. Main lesson here is as Genesis sang in 1974: “I know what I like and I like what I know”. People like unconsciously what is familiar to them even if they won’t admit this consciously (like a Celine Dion tune on the radio). Because they generally don’t like change it’s often a wise thing to wrap changes in something that appears to be familiar.

Part Three then deals with the habits of society and frankly I found this the least worthwhile of the book. Chapter 8 deals with how movements happen, told by the Montgomery Bus Boycott form the mid-1950s and the growth of Saddleback Church. Most important item to pick from here is probably the power of weak ties. The final chapter of the book has a somewhat philosophical outlook in that it looks in how much we are (or should be) responsible for our habits. This is discussed by using the examples of a compulsive gambler and someone who killed his wife in his sleep (‘sleepwalking’). The argument takes us back to the start of the book stating that if we are aware of a habit and do not make the effort to change it (like the gambler) then we are to be held responsible.

As said, the book wraps up with a short appendix that summarizes how you can go about changing habits, in case you want to. The framework for this consists of four steps: 1) Identify the routine, 2) Experiment with rewards, 3) Isolate the cue, and 4) Have a plan and make new choices. Good luck!

All in all nothing that I would list as essential reading, but a book with some interesting chapters and some good opportunities for reflection.

I’ve read the Random House paperback, ISBN 978-1-847-94624-9