You may have seen a report recently that just 10 minutes per day of brisk walking reduces the risk of early death by 15%. Despite my general scepticism of any catchy statistic that hits the press, the principle of getting people to be more active using an app seems like an indisputably positive step (ha ha).
This theme of small changes in routines having a significant long-term impact has been gaining momentum in our thinking at Mission Excellence. The idea that changing habits can have significant effects on overall outcomes isn’t exactly new - the clue’s in the title of Covey’s classic book from ‘Seven Habits of Highly Effective People’ from 1989. However, the role of technology in driving new behaviours is a more recent phenomenon in this hyper-connected, smartphone-shackled world most of us live in.
APPLICATIONS FOR APPLICATIONS
Here are three ways that we’ve been experimenting with technology to influence habits and improve performance, along with some top tips and insights into how you might put them into practice.
- Time tracking. This BBC report demonstrates how wearable tech has hugely amplified the level of detail that companies can collect on how employees are spending their days. Analysis then correlates certain behaviours to performance and productivity (and not always the behaviours you might think!). However, if you haven’t got the budget or desire to track every move, there are free/low-cost apps for every sort of time tracking or you can even start with a simple spreadsheet. We initially went low-tech with the latter, but still learned a lot…
- Top tip: Do it for at least a month. It may take a couple of weeks to define your activities and then it’s useful to standardise and group into categories so you can analyse the data.
- Great for: As a personal exercise, it allows you to evaluate whether you’re spending your time on the right/most important things, and change your activities. It’s also good for a bit of personal accountability - 'watching cat videos on facebook’ isn’t really an activity you want to list.
- Watch out for: Team members feeling that ‘big brother is always watching’. Don’t force people to share their minute-by-minute activities - instead have a group discussion about what each of you has learnt from the exercise and what you’re going to change.
- Most interesting insight: If you’re honest with your tracking, there’s nowhere to hide from the data. It forces you to face reality - yes you really did spend 40+ hours on one client’s proposal…we had better win it!
- Setting short-term goals. There are loads of online collaboration tools out there and most have a basic plan which offers a good level of functionality for free. Using a collaboration tool for your weekly team meeting helps communicate across the whole team what each other are working on, and forces individuals to articulate what their priorities are and maintain focus on those short-term goals. Using Trello as an example, each team member lists their week’s goals on a card under their name. At the weekly meeting, in turn, individuals outline their performance against the previous week, and go through their aims for the forthcoming week, which they’ve prepared the previous day.
- Top tip: Describe the weekly goals in terms of outcomes rather than activities. When writing them think about what the end result is, and - critically - what the purpose of it is.
- Great for: Public accountability - declaring you’ll achieve something to your team is a surprisingly powerful driver to get it done, even if there’s no actual consequence!
- Watch out for: Ensure you define goals which are (largely) within your control to achieve, or prepare to be frustrated.
- Most interesting insight: This process is great for self-awareness and learning about how you operate. Analysing why you didn’t achieve what’s on your list is as important as what you completed. For example, one great insight recently in our team was a realisation by one individual that he was not applying the principle of ‘only do the things that only you can do’, and was vastly over-committed as a result.
- Regular 360 Feedback. We’ve been building a relationship with Next Jump recently, an e-commerce company who these days are equally known for their approach to culture as a ‘Deliberately Developmental Organisation. Fast learning as a performance tool is one of our fundamental principles, and we (and our clients) are always looking to develop effective ways to build this into normal business. We were therefore keen to try using their app to give each other regular anonymous feedback, which is then available for the whole team to view - forever!
- Top tip: Leadership role modelling is key - actively ask for feedback and show your own vulnerability to build an environment of trust and encourage others.
- Great for: Regular feedback allows continuous ‘course corrections’. It also provides the opportunity to spot patterns or trends in behaviour and attitude.
- Watch out for: It’s unlikely your team will be ready to receive (or give) highly personal feedback on behaviours or character traits on day 1. Start with something easier to deal with - like feedback on presentations or similar.
- Most interesting insight: Anonymity is difficult to maintain in small teams! Secondly, giving is often harder than receiving. For a nice illustration on why giving feedback is important, see Kim Scott’s Ted talk on Radical Candour.
Technology marches resolutely forwards, and while there’s definitely a danger of being overwhelmed with data, intelligent use can have far-reaching impact. Using technology to make relatively small changes to habits and behaviours can cumulate in big performance gains. While the applications above aren’t necessarily going to extend your life, they might just help you and your team get more out of it.
 Check out BBC Radio 4’s More or Less: Behind the Stats podcast if you need convincing.
 Kegan, Robert, and Lisa Laskow Lahey. An everyone culture: Becoming a deliberately developmental organization. Harvard Business Review Press, 2016.