Forming new productivity habits in project teams

theory and practice


Your team's productivity habits are one of the magic ingredients of your project's success. If you have the right recipe, your team will complete projects on time and within budget, collaborate effortlessly, and feel connected. On the contrary, if the ingredients are stirred wrong, it might end in procrastination, unproductive meetings, inaccurate schedules, and continuous delays. Supported by neuroscience, behavioral research, and practical examples, this paper will discuss which productivity habits will make your project team more efficient, and how to make those habits part of your team's everyday life.

Challenge: Why new methods don't “stick” and what keeps certain workers reluctant to change?

When highly efficient people are asked about the secrets of their success, most of them reveal that it's not rocket science standing behind their performance. Often, you'll hear them answer that it's the result of small and simple, yet powerful habits that help them to be more organized, focused and, thus, get more done. Habits are a major significance in business, just as in everyone's personal life. Various studies show that we spend about 45% of our time every day on habitual actions. (Neal, Wood, & Quinn, 2006, p. 198) For example, how employees keep track of their tasks, at what time of the day their energy peaks, when and how you organize meetings — it's all the little habits that we do that matter. For a few seconds, imagine if your team didn't have any patterns in these operations. Without such “routines” people would just get lost and work would become chaotic.

People all have different work styles, but, as my experience shows, an important soft skill for a project manager is to help his or her team members develop the optimal mix of productivity habits. Even though a habit is typically a personal matter, in terms of project collaboration many habits may require some extent of managerial help, whether you're reforming some unproductive old habits, or creating something totally new.

When you try to integrate new methods into your team's work style, some members might be more willing to change, and thus more open to new methods, whereas others might be reluctant or even resistant. So, what are those common factors that might make it hard to ingrain behavioral change and prevent it from “sticking” in your employees’ work styles?

In short, a habit is a behavior that you perform automatically in particular circumstances or situations. It's something you do mostly unconsciously — you don't stop and focus on the specific action, it just happens naturally (as a side note — if you're interested in deeper scientific explanations of the phenomenon of unconscious activities, I would recommend that you read about the Libet experiment and subsequent studies of free will). Still, however simple a habitual action sounds and feels you'd probably be surprised by how much “homework” your brain needs to do so that some behavior becomes automated and turns into an ingrained habit. So, introducing a new pattern is not just a matter of your decision and will, but it also involves physical changes in your brain. This “rewiring” requires time and repetition.

Based on all these facts, I would say that the speed with which your team members adopt new habits is influenced by how strong their previous ones were. Also, it matters a lot whether you want to entirely rewrite a habit, or write a new one on top of it. Experts say that it's significantly more challenging to break a habit and replace it with a new one, rather than create a totally new habit that has some differences in its triggers and goals. Over the past decade, neuroscience has shed a lot of light on this matter. For instance, a research conducted by MIT's McGovern Institute showed how quickly old habits can re-emerge when something revives the memory of them, even when you think they were broken. (Williams, 2010, ¶6)

Thus, it seems logical that a change in habit(s) can't happen in the blink of an eye. Making a habit “stick” requires 66 days on the average, according to researchers. (Dean, 2009, ¶6) However, depending on how complex the new behavior is, the shift might take up to 8 months.

There's an interesting model in psychology that describes four states of learning new skills. (Adams, ¶4) The first stage is described as unconscious incompetence when a person doesn't understand how to do something and he or she doesn't really suffer from this deficit. Most likely, he or she doesn't even think about it. Then, he or she proceeds to conscious incompetence: he or she still doesn't know how to do something, but he or she realizes this lack of knowledge and understands the possible value of a new skill. As he or she learns, he or she gradually reaches the state of conscious competence: the skill is mastered, but it still requires some focus. Finally, at the phase of unconscious competence, the skill now “sticks” so much, that a person does it naturally and easily. This means that it has become a habit.

Also, there is a classic curve that illustrates people's reactions to change across time, as shown in Exhibit 1 (Rick, 2011):

Classic psychological reactions to change

Exhibit 1 – Classic psychological reactions to change.

This once again underlines that the initial resistance to change has deep reasons in human nature. In planting new habits in your team, the goal is to minimize the time and the dip in self-esteem that occurs in the first five stages (through crisis), bringing in acceptance and new confidence as soon as possible.

With such scientific background in mind, Ray Williams, author of Breaking Bad Habits and The Leadership Edge, suggests a recommendation for managers who want to change their team's behaviors. (Williams, 2010, ¶14) To help employees make the change smooth, minimize rejection and negativity, he advises team leaders to focus on desired new patterns, rather than analyze and try to fix the old ones.

Based on my own experience, I think that having insight into neuroscience is valuable knowledge for organization leaders and project managers. Understanding how the human brain is wired is very important for setting and adjusting your team management practices, including the part that refers to introduction of new productivity habits. You might see that some of your employees’ behaviors have simple natural explanations, and this can help you tailor your decisions appropriately. In the past several years, research in this area has boomed, and as a result there are some great publications on the topic.

Solution: How to Introduce New Working Habits and Make Them “Stick”

Your team's working habits are one of the most important things that can help you “program” your organization and its culture for quick learning, growth and success. With the help of habits, people know where and how they should be heading, without stopping on their way to think through every routine. Instead, they can use their resources to focus on the more creative sides of your projects. Habits form your team's “memory” that goes from project to project. Jim Collins, famous business consultant and expert in company sustainability, pointed out in his book Great by Choice that unparalleled discipline is the secret of the most successful, high-performing organizations. (Collins, Hansen, 2011, p.128) Each of them has its own SMaC (Specific, Methodical and Consistent) recipe — it's a set of durable practices that form a consistent and replicable success formula. This means that even if a business operates in a fast changing and uncertain environment, SMaC will help it get through even the most challenging situations, because its employees know what to do. Productivity habits can contribute directly to the SMaC formula.

Let's look at how you can get over the challenges of introducing new methods and make them sustainable in your project team.

Leading by Example

Naturally, people respect and are more open to managers who “walk the talk” together with them, rather than those who distance themselves and stick to a “do as I say” strategy. Scott Berkun, bestselling author on project management and innovation, gave this a really good description: “I think leadership comes from integrity — that you do whatever you ask others to do. I think there are non-obvious ways to lead. Just by providing a good example makes it possible for other people to see better ways to do things.” (Ho, 2005)

If you start planting a new productivity habit by your own example, your team members can immediately see how it works in action. In such a credible, “live” way you can communicate the vision more clearly as you go - why is this method good, what its benefits are, etc. Moreover, it can also be encouraging for them to follow when they see how you get more things done.

Sharing the Power to Change (“Peer Pressure”)

When you want to roll out change, making it happen in one big swipe is hardly possible. Your own example is a good (I'd even say essential) starter, but it's not sufficient. Additional support from a group of “pioneers” might be extremely helpful. Like it was mentioned in the beginning of the paper, the willingness to accept some new patterns greatly differs between people. Also, some of your employees might be more productivity oriented than others. The tactic that I suggest is forming the “core team” from those team members who are most open to change, building the right productivity habit among them, and delegating the power to change. As they collaborate with colleagues, it'll be easier and more natural to plug in the rest of the team through peer pressure. If someone else can do it, you become more confident in your own ability to do it, and confidence in one's own abilities is a powerful efficiency trigger.

This idea of peer pressure finds support in psychology. There's a related concept which is called social facilitation. The idea is that people tend to perform better if they do it in cooperation, compete with someone, or they're just observed by someone else. A popular example is that cyclists’ speed increases when they're racing against others, rather than they're doing it alone against the clock. (McLeod, 2011, ¶3) Likewise, as a variation of peer pressure, you might inject a bit of competition into day-to-day work. For someone with a competitive spirit, it will add extra motivation.

Horizontal or Vertical Rollout

Small changes can sometimes make a big difference. I believe this stands totally true for positive changes in people's workplace habits, meaning that every step forward is significant. Step by step, you can move forward with the adoption of a new productivity habit in one of two dimensions. The first dimension, or option, is to begin with a part of the team and then gradually roll it out to the rest of the employees. This would be a horizontal approach. If you handle it vertically, the idea is to split the new method into parts and make them “stick” one after another. For example, it could be helpful in forming a culture of sharing, which I'll discuss later in the paper.

Here's the big value that I see in such tactics: every bit of the newly ingrained habit and the shifts in productivity that it brings are small precious wins that inspire further progress. Theresa Amabile, a professor of business administration, and Steven Kramer, an independent researcher in psychology, gave deep insights into this phenomenon in The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work, based on personal stories of 238 office employees. Their study showed that seemingly minor victories are actually almost as powerful as big breakthroughs in terms of how they enhance people and induce their passion. (Nobel, 2011, ¶11) Amabile and Kramer revealed that 28% of different small events made an impact on inner life. Another great thing about small wins is that you can experience them very often. So, act small when you want to drive a big change, and both you and your team will notice the benefits soon.

Motivation Triggers

Every habit goes through kind of a neurological loop that consists of three parts. It was described by Charles Duhigg in his bestselling book The Power of Habit (which I'd highlight as a very good read on the topic). The first part is the cue, which is something that triggers a particular behavior (Duhigg, 2012, p.24); next comes the routine. It's the sequence of actions which might be positive or negative (i.e., form the habit). The final part of the habit loop is the reward - the ultimate goal of this all which makes this sequence worth repeating. On the neuroscience side - in its never-ending thrive for efficiency, the brain aims to automate behaviors to save its resources on other more complicated processes.

In the previous tips, we discussed some ways in which you can influence the first two components as you plant a new method in your team. But the third part is just as powerful. To facilitate the adoption of a new productivity habit, you need to pay equal attention both to the rational and the emotional sides of the change. In Switch: How to Change When Change is Hard, Chip and Dan Heath refer to a good metaphor first described by psychologist Jonathan Haidt. (Heath, 2011) In our reactions and decisions, we're driven by the duo of an emotional “Elephant” and a rational “Rider.” It's wrong to assume that the Rider, who is much smaller than the Elephant, is in full control. So, to drive a change, you need to direct the rider, motivate the elephant, as well as shape their paths (external environment and easy instructions).

As a way to influence the “emotional elephant” for habit change, you should give your team some extra motivation to repeat the new method more frequently, so that it integrates into people's work styles. Being a leader, provide feedback, answer any questions timely if they arise, go through the change together with your team. Above, I already mentioned how a bit of competition can make the habit introduction more natural and fun. Here, the choices are only limited to your creativity. For example, when you see that some employees’ results are getting better thanks to the newly applied method, you should recognize this improvement. If someone wasn't convinced yet, he or she will see proof that it's actually working. For others, it might be inspiring to aim for the same results.

Blending new work styles into existing practices

In the first part of the paper, we observed why old habits are so strong and persistent. It makes them hard to replace, but what if it's a positive and productive old habit? You wouldn't want to break this one. What's more, you can leverage it into adopting something new. So, another way to ease and quicken the adoption of productivity methods is blending them into the established practices that exist in your team. This would make new methods feel more familiar and, thus, the transition would be more natural.

To illustrate this tip, I'd like to share an example from my own company. When we launched our product, Wrike, most project teams relied on email as their primary collaboration tool. Many people were complaining about email chaos, but they still used it daily. Seeing people so reliant on email, we thought it would be unproductive if we tried to break their habits and replace email in one sweep. Instead, we decided to plug into that habit. As a result, we came up with Wrike's email integration, which our customers love, which greatly improves their productivity and solves email-related main pain points.

Here's another software-related example: mobile is making a huge impact on ongoing changes in work styles. I think it's fair to say that most people can't imagine their everyday lives without smartphones today. This instant availability and positive emotional attachment makes it a perfect platform to extend work solutions to. Your team members will literally have the project data in their pockets, and it's easy for them to access it on the go, because they already have a habit of playing with their gadgets, say, while they're commuting, sitting in a cafe, and so forth.

Examples: Building Particular Productivity Habits

Every project team has its own special internal DNA, so it's up to you, their leader, to define what productivity habits are the missing pieces in the collaboration puzzle and what would help the employees make the most of their potential. However, there are some common ones which I believe any team would benefit from. This choice is inspired by the interesting and stirring discussions that I've seen after presenting on project collaboration at the last PMI congress and in PMI chapters across the country. So, in this final part of the paper, I'll give a detailed insight into two specific productivity habits — granular work management and culture of sharing.

Granular workload management

Let's imagine a real-life situation. Say, you're having a big renovation going on in your house. At some point, you want to check on the progress. Would it be sufficient if your contractor told you “it's 50% complete”? Most likely not, because it doesn't shed any light on what's been accomplished, what's in progress and what's not even started yet. Was the kitchen redone and it's time to order new furniture, or has part of the living room been completed? You can only wonder before you go onsite and take a look yourself.

This example gives a simple illustration of the pitfalls you can face if the tasks that you assign are too big. If you project it onto the realities of team collaboration, this implies serious dangers. It hinders your visibility into real work progress. If something goes wrong, you might realize it too late to fix things. On the “doers” side, big assignments have their own complications.

Joseph Ferrari, a professor from DePaul University, says that when the scope of work looks overwhelming, you get captured by the feeling of “seeing the forest and forgetting that it's made of trees.” (Spencer, 2012, ¶1) So, for your employees, big tasks might feel complicated, and they might have difficulty figuring out how to get started. Also, there might be other employees who feel comfortable hiding behind an abstract percent of completion, while they've actually made very little progress. The risk increases if your team is distributed and you don't have an opportunity to regularly ask for status updates face-to-face.

Instead of huge tasks, splitting work into smaller tasks might be a helpful tactic as you manage your employees’ workload. For team members, an evident benefit is that it's easier to clearly understand the goals and the expected result. For you, their leader, it gives more control and makes tracking easier, as well as if you want to bring in your customers or stakeholders and share the progress with them. Consequently, reporting becomes more transparent, and you can run fewer meetings in order to discuss the updates.

The main counter-arguments to the granular approach is that it takes too much work for managers to do the planning and re-planning, and that the workers might feel micromanaged. Let's look at the right ways of addressing these concerns.

As a tool to mitigating uncertainty in future tasks, making your schedules more accurate and easier to develop, you can use the sliding scale. The level of detail for your team's weekly, monthly, quarterly and annual scale plans varies greatly. When possible, leverage that by only planning 1 or 2 steps on each scale. This way, you can have a very detailed plan of what to do next week, but at the same time, it will be consistent with your higher level plans and goals. On an individual level, the person can even try to plan his or her own day, so that it meets the higher level plans. As a new period of time comes, be it a year, quarter, month, or week, you plan it and adjust higher level plans when needed, thus the term “sliding scale.” Think of it as a set of magnifying glasses of different strength and an area that moves on the timeline along with the “today” mark. The closer this time period is to today, the more detailed your plan should be. This way, your team will have a clear vision of what needs to be done.

When possible, I'd also recommend you to try bottom-up planning to make granular tasks work, in other words, let your employees build the plan themselves. It's a clear win-win, they won't feel micromanaged, they may even have better “field” knowledge, and it might make your life easier. Of course, you, as a project manager, need to be in the loop and be ready to step in, if some adjustments are required to align with higher level objectives, or if you notice some schedule conflicts that need to be fixed. When the workload and deadlines aren't imposed on the employees, but instead they set the plan themselves, they'll naturally feel more responsible for completing these tasks on time. By empowering them with the feeling of control over work, you give them additional motivation.

This way, it will fulfill people's natural need for autonomy. According to David Rock, who coined the term “neuroleadership,” when people don't get enough autonomy in their work, lack control or feel micromanaged, it generates a threat response. (Rock, 2009, ¶5) So, if you increase their perception of autonomy, your employees will feel less stressed and more confidant.

Some interesting figures to support the point: recently, Wrike conducted an online survey on working habits that gathered input from almost two thousand respondents. When we asked people what drives their efficiency the most, we discovered that a sense of responsibility is the evident leader, as shown in Exhibit 2:

Top factors that motivate people's efficiency, according to Wrike's survey

Exhibit 2 – Top factors that motivate people's efficiency, according to Wrike's survey.

Slicing work into smaller parts has some more psychological benefits. It brings the powerful concept of small wins into action. An employee feels more satisfied and happy when he or she completes one task after another, rather than when he or she is somewhere in the middle of a huge assignment.

Also, besides better visibility, easier tracking and reporting, this practice is also an efficient weapon against procrastination, which is seen as the No.1 productivity enemy by 21% of workers. (Wrike, 2012, ¶11) Mentioning all these benefits might be very useful when you start introducing granular work management to your team and explain why it makes sense.

Culture of sharing

A big challenge that many project teams are suffering from is hindered accessibility to relevant work-related information. Let's say you urgently need a particular document, but instead of getting it instantly from the project collaboration software, you have to embark on a quest of finding the person who knows where the document is and getting the document from that person, and hopefully, the right version of it. A good scenario is if you know who exactly to ask, but it's not always the case. If the person is not immediately available, you are blocked in your task, and that hurts everybody's productivity. The document is just a tangible example, but these roadblocks also happen daily when it comes to status of work, up-to-date schedules, answers to important questions, and other project-related information.

For most workers, it's not an ingrained behavior to proactively organize and share information when no one else seems to urgently need them. The existing organizational habits could usually be described as reactive disclosure. This is why it requires some dedicated effort to develop a habit of sharing in your team. The culture of sharing is an essential prerequisite of workflow transparency, which, in turn, has a direct correlation with your team's efficiency and business agility. It's not surprising that according to a survey by RW3 CultureWizard, sharing information ranked as the top answer when respondents were asked what makes a good teammate. (RW3, 2010, p.16) I used the word “culture” instead of “habit,” and it emphasizes that it's not a rapid shift to make. Let's see how the framework from the previous part of the paper could be applied here.

You can start by your own good example, which was the first method we discussed. Make sure that all project information that you send to the team or share with a particular person directly, is available in its latest version to every involved project member at any time. For example, instead of emailing a document to Mary, it would be more productive to place it into a project repository in the cloud and email a link to the team. This way, everybody will stay on the same page and be able to retrieve the up-do-date doc when necessary, even if Mary changed something. As an even more convenient option — you could do that in a cloud project collaboration tool that will let you share files in the context of your tasks and projects and discuss them in the same spot, foregoing email at all. For example, later, when you ask Bob to help on a particular task, neither he, nor you will need to spend time searching for all the related messages and files. As workers thrive for easy data accessibility, there's a good chance that in this situation peer pressure can come in naturally.

This habit could be used to illustrate the concept of vertical rollout as well. It won't be a burden for your team if you ask them to exchange important documents related to your weekly meetings. With proper persistence and encouragement, in some time it'll build up into a habit. You can then extend it beyond weekly meetings into the next area of your work.

When it comes to culture, you can also boost the process a little bit with the help of fun. Make it not only about work — encourage team members to share their favorite music or vacation photos, or professional reads, for instance. This “social sharing” is especially important in distributed teams that don't have the luxury of frequent in person communications.

It's important to note that the success of sharing greatly depends on the technology that you pick as an enabler. If your software (or mix of tools) is complicated, requires a lot of learning and forces people to drastically change the way they work — most likely, it'll be a failure and won't help. Your team would just reject it, and they'll stick to the old patterns with no sharing. Many team leaders say that requiring big changes in work styles was the number one reason of failed software implementation in their experience. For instance, here's what one of our customers, an IT support organization, told us in an interview. (Wrike, 2011) Their team had very strong, long-standing habits of collaborating via email. At some point when they outgrew email, the manager started looking for a project management tool to replace it. Of over 40 apps he considered in his search, he rejected most because they'd require too much “upkeep” from the team.

On the contrary, it will be very helpful if you choose an easy-to-use system that would pull all your project data together without imposing any additional burden on your employees. If the important data, including status updates, comments, latest file versions, plan changes, and so forth flows into the system automatically, the chances are higher that your team will welcome this new software.


To wrap up, let me quote motivational speaker Brian Tracy: “Successful people are simply those with successful habits.” The task of a project manager is to guide his or her team to the greatest of their potential, so that team members collaborate effortlessly and achieve great results together. As our experience, as well as neuroscience research shows us, behavioral change isn't an easy thing to do. It's just how human brains are wired. So, if you want to introduce new methods to your employees, it requires good homework and active participation from you from the very beginning. Tools like leading by example, finding your champions, leveraging peer pressure, staged rollouts, blending into existing practices, as well as motivation triggers, are there to make this process easier both for you and your team. Remember that even a small productivity habit contributes to building your project team's culture. So, eventually you'll see the effort you put into the habits’ adoption will pay back in better performance and success on every project.


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© 2013, Andrew Filev
Originally published as a part of the 2013 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – New Orleans, Louisiana



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