Making the Novel Seem Familiar

Most of us are all too comfortable in our habits. The lesson for leaders in an era of change: Make the novel seem familiar.

I just finished reading “The Power of Habit,” a wonderful book that’s changed the way I look at many routines in my work and personal life. The author, Charles Duhigg, decodes why we are so reliant on multiple habits each day, how those habits help our brains and what we can do to change habits when needed.

In an age that requires organizations to change and adapt frequently, leaders continually look for ways to make their organizations more nimble and flexible. But as Duhigg makes abundantly clear, most individuals crave the comfort of habits, including those that are bad for us. How do effective leaders address that challenge?

Duhigg cites an instructive example from history to answer this question:

In the aftermath of the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor, our nation had to become prepared for the war effort. This involved a genuine transformation throughout the country, one that touched everyone’s daily life. Gas was rationed, people recycled, they created “victory gardens,” and our diets were affected because most of our meat supply went to the troops. Americans who loved steaks and pork chops soon found them in short supply; they had to find other ways to get their meat fix, like eating liver, tongue, hearts, intestines and kidneys. But government officials were very concerned that Americans would rebel at the notion of eating these organ foods, and would soon become starved of protein.

A group of leading social scientists studied the problem, and their recommendation was simple: make the new foods seem like the old ones. That is, prepare animal organs look, smell and taste just like the meat that we knew and loved. So the government produced easy-to-use manuals for homemakers, filled with recipes using liver and kidneys that tasted like good old beef. These efforts home paid off, most Americans willingly adjusted, and by the 1950s some organ meats had actually become status symbols.

The lesson for today’s leaders: dress the novel in old clothes — make it seem familiar. Duhigg isn’t talking about using spin and manipulation to fool people. Rather, he shows how to meet our brains’ needs for the familiar by making a new product service seem similar to what we already know.

So, how can we make the new seem familiar when leading organizational change? Consider the following:

  • Rehearse for the unusual. Successful sports coaches put their players through drills to prepare them for a variety of situations that occur only occasionally: how the football team will move down the field in its “two-minute offense,” or what the basketball team will do when it has the ball with 10 seconds left and it’s down by two points. These drills help the players feel like they’re in familiar territory when the situation arises during a game. The military and local first responders also excel at such training.


  • Remind people of a past success. Some change leaders ask employees to recall when they have done something in the past that was similar to the current change. For example, I once saw a state agency head introduce a new HR process by noting a previous process change in one division of the organization. “That process is working beautifully now; it took a while, but we pulled it off, and our customers love it. So we know something about changing processes. …”


  • Tap a core competence. Some leaders and managers create a sense of familiarity by showing how one of the organization’s core competencies can be used to implement change.  For instance, many state and local government emergency management agencies have core competencies in planning, communications, and rapid response. These same skills can be critical when implementing  change initiatives. Ask some emergency management staff to take key roles in the change by leading the planning and communications teams.


  • Engage familiar people. Some organizations have brought back former (and successful) leaders to take over the reins during a crisis. That’s what Starbucks did when it lost its edge and brought Howard Schultz back as CEO in 2008. And that’s what the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency did in 1983 when the agency’s reputation was seriously compromised: It brought back its founding director, William Ruckelshaus, a man known for his integrity and dedication to the EPA’s mission.

Engaging familiar people, of course, can include those who already work for your organization when leading a change. Identify a few informal leaders, involve them early in the change planning and see if they’ll take responsibility for one part of the change.

  • Use familiar language. Robert Kennedy once noted that “everybody is in favor of improvement, but mention the word ‘change’ and you immediately make enemies.” Language has a powerful impact on how people perceive their world, so think carefully about the language you use when describing the change. I once consulted with a fine local government department head who had named one of his change projects “Maintaining our World-Class Edge.” That might have worked if most of the employees thought that the agency was functioning extremely well. Alas, many of the staff thought that their agency was functioning poorly, and the title resulted in a proliferation of Dilbert-style cartoons. On the other hand, the Federal Aviation Administration’s strategic plan is called “The Flight Plan.” Because FAA employees take great pride in their agency and its accomplishments, the term “Flight Plan” has a very clear and positive meaning to them.


  • Note that not everything will change. When managing a transition, effective leaders point out what won’t be different as well as what will. If employees will retain their pay grade and titles, if they’ll need the same skills to do their work or if they’ll remain in the same unit, say so. That helps put many people at ease.

And here’s one final thought. You can use Charles Duhigg’s insight — make the novel seem familiar — to build your workers’ confidence about managing change. If your organization has been sailing through turbulent seas in recent years and it’s handled the ups and downs well, refer to that experience and the employees’ resilience. Telling your associates that “we’ve been here before, we know how to handle this” is both honest and reassuring. It suggests that the staff has developed a new habit — the habit of change.

One comment on “Making the Novel Seem Familiar

  1. Terry Newell says:

    Nice post. This calls to mind, for me, the work on mental heuristics – the notion that we develop certain patterns in our thinking because those patterns (even though wrong in some situations) save time and especially mental energy. These habits of the mind are hard tobreak.

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