Breaking Bad Habits: A book review by Bob Morris

Breaking Bad Habits: Defy Industry Norms and Reinvigorate Your Business Hardcover
Freek Vermeulen

Harvard Business Review Press (November 2017)

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”

I agree with Aristotle’s comment, presuming to add that lacking excellence (e.g. “good is good enough”) can also become a habit rather than remain an isolated act. As decades of research by Anders Ericsson and his associates at Florida State University clearly reveal, an individual’s peak performance is the result of rigorous  and repetitive practices (“deep work”) — under expert supervision — over an extended period of time.

In the Preface of this book, Freek Vermeulen observes, some “organizations are also filled with practices – habitual ways of doing things – that are sometimes inefficient and bureaucratic, and that makes our blood boil.

“Sometimes these inefficient practices and strategies spread and persist for decades, or even longer. They persist just like viruses persist in nature. They take on lives of their own and continue operating despite leading to suboptimal results in companies that embody them. The good news is that smart managers can purposefully identify and eradicate them, and then turn them into a profitable source of renewal and innovation. That is what this book is about.”

Vermeulen has identified what he characterizes as “The Ten Commandments of Business Innovation.” Here they are, accompanied by my brief annotations:

1. Cut out the benchmarking: Whatever works well somewhere else probably won’t work as well here.
2. Reverse benchmark instead: Look for a practice that everyone else relies on.
3. Experiment if you can (but make sure to do it well): Test only what you can control and measure.
4. Monitor entrants and companies in distress: Who has nothing to lose? Who has everything to lose?
5. Ask insiders for concerns: That is especially true of people who interact directly with customers.
6. Ask outsiders for suspicions: What do others see as vulnerabilities to exploit?
7. Create bundles of practices: One-stop need fulfillment/problem-solving
8. Take aim at a chunk of the market: Where are the vulnerabilities to exploit?
9. Just stop it: If it’s DOA, bury it.
10. Watch out for “That’s the way we do things around here”: Keep what still works well and get rid of what doesn’t.

He thoroughly explains all this in Chapter 7, Pages 98-120.

I wholly agree with Vermeulen that organizations are the fundamental building blocks of human life. “Our ability to organize – into constellations of hundreds and even thousands of individuals, conducting tasks beyond any individual’s comprehension – is arguably the one thing that sets us apart from other species.”

Organizations as well as individuals can become hostage to what James O’Toole so aptly characterizes as “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom.” It is also true that organizations as well as individuals can develop their own best practices as well as the kinds of habits to which Aristotle refers.

As Freek Vermeulen well knows, most of the companies annually ranked among those that are most highly admired and best to work for are also ranked among those that are most profitable and have the greatest cap value in their industry. The nature and extent of each practice and habit in place may differ somewhat but all enable those who embrace them to achieve together what none of them could do alone.

That is the essence of wisdom in the timeless African proverb: “To go fast, go alone. To go far, go together.” Business leaders should keep that proverb in mind when deciding between pursuing short-term profits and long-term prosperity.


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