An Excerpt from Team Habits: How Small Actions Lead to Extraordinary Results

Charlie Gilkey

September 07, 2023



TeamHabits.jpgThe teams we work in amplify our individual efforts, yet we constantly struggle to accomplish what is possible. You can see all the problems in a typical weekly meeting. No planning. Missing goals. Muddled communication. We think just bringing our personal hopes and desires will be enough. It’s not.

The groups we work in need collective habits as much as individuals need better personal habits. Determining team habits for things like planning, decision-making, and prioritization produce reliability and ease for everyone. Team habits create better work and let people work better together.

In Team Habits, Charlie Gilkey explains how the revolution in personal habits has an even greater potential when applied to teams. With practical exercises, a Team Habits Quiz to evaluate areas for improvement, and a guide to create a team habits roadmap, Team Habits will help you transform your group so team members can flourish and thrive. If changing the smallest habit can yield powerful results for an individual, then just imagine what it can do for your team.

The following excerpt comes from Chapter Two, and explains why 



When we build team habits, we’re building them in the same way that we build habits for individuals. And, as with building or changing an individual habit, this sort of work doesn’t happen overnight. Which means it can get discouraging. 

We get habits to stick via consistent repetition and positive feedback loops. Our entrenched habits have both of these elements: consistent repetition (inertia) and positive feedback loops (low cognitive, emotional, and social labor via habituation). To roll out new habits, we need to repeat them to the point of collective habituation and amplify the positive feedback loops of better results and belonging. 

A shift happens when we switch from individual action and choices to social action and choices. If I’m a solo worker and I change my schedule to work for me, there may be a few consequences, but it’s mostly pretty straightforward. If I work in a team setting, changing my schedule requires negotiation, communication, consideration of other people’s needs and availability, understanding of the precedents the change may set, and a whole litany of other considerations that are essentially social overhead (the ongoing or indirect social costs of operating or maintaining a team’s or organization’s way of being). 

As individuals and groups, we’ll exchange only lower cognitive, emotional, and social labor for something that most of us agree is better. Luckily, most of us agree that more winning and belonging are better and are willing to do the change work to get there. 

As you’re going about the work of changing team habits, it’s insufficient to just talk about the how—you have to talk about the why of change. It doesn’t have to be some grand company purpose; more everyday small wins, belonging, and ease are quite sufficient.   

And it turns out that everyday small wins, belonging, and ease are things we can all participate in.  

We have a bias in our society, especially in the business world, toward making sweeping changes. Is something not working well? Let’s clear it out and start fresh.  

But while the idea of tackling a big change sounds impressive, it’s actually antithetical to the end goal of making lasting change. It’s like wedging your crowbar underneath a massive boulder in the hopes of moving a mountain. At best, you end up frustrated when you have little to no progress to show after your efforts. At worst, you throw out your back and decide it’s not worth it to try to make change in the future. 

At the individual level, we’re all familiar with the quick diet or quick habit change that ultimately doesn’t stick. Unless you’re one of the rare souls who can try a bunch of changes and be okay with them not sticking, the end result is that you’ll become resistant or hardened to the next quick fix. 

Because your team’s habits are shared agreements and expectations, this same pattern plays out, but with more intensity. To change a habit, you’re already negotiating with others to overcome inertia to try something new. Unless you’re addressing a broken printer that everyone wants fixed—which is a great place to start, by the way—there’s already an effort/reward calculation going on in your team. And quick-start change projects that don’t stick only reinforce inertia and the feeling of “That’s just how we do it here.” 

If you step away from the boulder and drop the crowbar, you’ll start to notice that the mountain you’re trying to move is actually made up of stones. Pick up a small one; you’ll be surprised how much easier it is to carry and how much progress you can make moving one small stone at a time. 

As you approach team habits, I want you to shift away from the big change management paradigm and focus on identifying the small things you can change more quickly. There are a few reasons for this. 

Build Momentum Faster 

If I had to guess, I would assume that you’re already working at capacity. Your plate is full with the day-to-day responsibilities of your job even before you start tackling projects designed to improve your team’s habits. 

When you identify small projects to address, you’ll begin to see change faster. Moving one stone—for example, eliminating the CC Thread from Hell—creates more bandwidth for you to address the next stone. And with each small stone you move, you and your teammates will see more progress and gain more momentum. 

You’ll have an easier time telling the story of this project’s success because there aren’t so many moving parts involved. This serves both to energize your team and to prove to those outside your team that this work has value.  

Work on a Human Timeline 

The second reason to move stones instead of mountains is that the more you try to bite off, the longer the project will take and the harder it will be to maintain focus. We’re primed to think in terms of months, which makes a month an ideal length of time for a team habit sprint. You can sustain energy on a project for a month because the short time span feels doable on a human timeline. 

That said, some projects will take longer than others, and some organizations will work more quickly or slowly than others. In a large organization, a team habit sprint may take a quarter to see all the way through because things move a bit more slowly. But you shouldn’t choose habits that will take a quarter to change. Instead, focus on a category and decide that over the course of a quarter, you’ll focus on X habit this month, Y habit next month, and Z habit after that. Over the course of that quarter, you’ll see the difference. 

Regardless of the size of your organization, picking smaller habit interventions that you can see through in a month will help you feel that sense of momentum. 

Get Buy-in More Easily 

Another reason to focus on shifting stones rather than moving mountains is that teams are self-correcting systems. The bigger the proposed change, the bigger the resistance you’ll face, and the harder it will be to see lasting results. Moving small stones allows you to start identifying how the system will self-correct so you can address that specifically. 

The truth is that changing a team habit may mean we all win in the long run—but in the short run, someone loses. Someone set up the original habit or benefits from it being that way. It could be that Bob just doesn’t like databases, and so you have an entire department that runs on 243 different interlinked spreadsheets. It’s inefficient, but because it’s relatively functional, no one has tried to change it. Not to mention, you’ll have to drag Bob kicking and screaming to the idea of using a database instead of the spreadsheet system he set up. 

The mountain you need to move is transforming these spreadsheets into a database. But the first stone you need to carry is changing Bob’s attitude toward databases. You need to teach Bob why your database solution is better and that he can get the same information without having to change anything—while the team’s life will improve a lot. 

In this scenario, Bob is the agent of system correction. If you try to overhaul the whole system at once, Bob might say, “You know what? It looks like you all don’t have enough work right now because you have enough time to change all these spreadsheets.” He’ll pile your plate with busywork, and the next time you bring up spreadsheets, he’ll stonewall your efforts. 

Change one small spreadsheet that Bob isn’t using much, though, and you’ll be more likely to get buy-in. When he sees how well that project went, he’ll probably buy in to the next one. By the time you’re transforming all his spreadsheets into a database, Bob will have been brought slowly along to the point of view that this change is actually simpler than your old team habits. 

Let Sleeping Dragons Lie, for Now 

The last reason to focus on stones is that sometimes there are dragons under mountains. 

Team habits aren’t created in a vacuum; they’re a reaction to the larger work culture of the organization. For instance, a team that has a terrible set of executives might learn to compensate by creating inefficient habits that allow them to avoid taking things before the executives and dealing with the inevitable morass that creates. Their team habits may not be ideal, but they’re in place because of this other fact that they can’t control. 

Shifting smaller stones lets you begin to illuminate the bigger problem. You can say, “There’s something here that needs to be addressed; what are we going to do about that?” You can start a productive discussion. But if you start by moving the mountain, you might open a Pandora’s box of problems that you can’t simply put back.


Excerpted from Team Habits: How Small Actions Lead to Extraordinary Results.
Copyright © 2023 by Charlie Gilkey.
All rights reserved. 


About the Author

Charlie Gilkey has advised hundreds of teams, from Fortune 100 companies to tiny nonprofits, through Productive Flourishing, the coaching and training company he founded. Charlie is the author of the critically acclaimed Start Finishing: How to Go from Idea to Done. He is also a former Army logistics officer and a near PhD in Philosophy. Charlie lives in Portland, OR.

About the Author

Charlie Gilkey is the founder of Productive Flourishing, a company that helps professional creatives, leaders, and changemakers take meaningful action on work that matters.

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