Break the habit

Leading the future is possible, but you must unshackle yourself from the present.

In Czechia, they have a proverb: “A habit is a shirt made of iron.” The idiom captures an uncomfortable reality about human lives. We shape our habits, thereafter they shape us. By midlife, much of what we do is so ingrained that, like an iron shirt, it becomes near impossible to cast off. 

Yet when the business journalist Charles Duhigg investigated human behavior for his 2012 book The Power of Habit, he discovered a curious truth. Habits, as iron-clad as they are, can be broken – if you know how. 

Duhigg revealed that every human habit consists of three elements: cue, routine and reward. These apply to even the most prosaic of functions. Take our morning ritual. Waking is a cue for many leaders to crave a cup of coffee. The routine is their walking to the kitchen, finding a cup, brewing and pouring the drink. The reward is the caffeine hit they receive. Soon after drinking they are no longer bleary-eyed and languid, but alert and motivated. Thus, the cue-routine-reward creates a powerful ‘habit loop’ that is enduring, and self-sustaining. 

Few of us wish to abolish our cherished morning coffee, so there is little need to break that habit loop. Yet problems arise when there are habits of which we should – or must – be rid. Leading for the future demands such uncoupling. If we, like old dogs, fail to learn new tricks, we are doomed. What’s next is alien to what has been. The AI age is dawning. And, like the advent of any other epoch, there are traps that must be avoided. The pitfalls with AI are manifold. But they fall broadly into three categories. 

The first is factual. AI optimizes all information, regardless of whether true or false. Hence the phenomenon of so-called AI ‘hallucinations’, which, in plain business English, are called ‘errors.’ This proliferation of disinformation and misinformation requires enhanced critical-thinking capacity among leaders and teams. 

The second is procedural. Change is hard. People resist progress because they fear change or worry that AI tools might render them obsolete. As this column noted in Dialogue Q2 2024, people faced with change frequently flee or freeze, rather than calmly assess how they can survive, or thrive, in the coming shift. 

The third pitfall is occupational. Business’s recruitment needs have changed fundamentally. We traditionally hired for competency – to execute the jobs of the present. Yet, as AI makes things obsolete, we need to recruit instead for curiosity – to explore the prospects of
the future. 

Questioning purported facts, embracing change and hiring the curious over the competent demand the breaking of habits. Duhigg offers salvation: by tweaking one or more of the three elements in the loop, outmoded, ineffective, habits can be purged; and contemporary, successful, customs adopted. Imagine you want to transform recruitment in your organization, to build teams that can win in the AI era. Change the cue. Next time a team member leaves, don’t immediately advertise their job as it is today. Take the opportunity to reimagine your future needs. 

Once the recruitment process is running, change the routine. Rather than asking candidates how they did something (competency), ask them to imagine hypothetical, so far unencountered, scenarios. Inquire how they would go about exploring their causes, opportunities, and threats (curiosity). 

Finally, change the reward. Measure your recruitment success less on how new employees execute routine tasks, but how effectively they explore new trends and unearth novel opportunities. This mindset is imperative to winning not just the future but the present, by reframing work not just as ‘jobs to be done’, but as a forum for ideas. Rewarding experimentation will strengthen the link between the routine and positive outcomes, reinforcing your new, effective, habit loop. 

Generative AI is the most powerful tool of the next age. It ought not be feared; but it must be prepared for. Duhigg shows how that preparation
is possible. 

The Power of Habit gives the lie to the Czech proverb. Our habits weigh heavy like iron, shackling us to the past. But they can be refashioned into silks that catch the wind of the future.  

Vishal Patel is president of global markets at Duke Corporate Education.