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Some habits are killers once they’re engrained in your company. These counter-productive practices are easily overlooked, especially if they’re widespread and well liked. To make matters worse, bad habits are contagious: they’re often unconsciously imitated and thoughtlessly adopted by all actors in the same industry, they stifle questioning and they cripple the ability to adapt and innovate. So how can you jettison these habits once and for all?

You’re probably already familiar with so-called “best practices” that are ineffective, stupid and even downright damaging! There’s a long list of them: the frantic rush for short-term gains that puts the brakes on innovation and depresses performance over the long term; extended working hours that wear staff down and lead to serious strategic mistakes; the millions poured into marketing and promotional campaigns with zero (or even a negative) return on investment.Welcome to the mad house! Freek Vermeulen argues that bad practices affect (almost) every organization, striking at every level and across all departments, from product design to marketing strategy via the supply chain and staff management. They also make life harder than it needs to be.

Why do bad practices become so deeply entrenched?

Are organizations that are plagued by pernicious practices led by masochistic decision-makers? No. The problem is that they don’t see bad habits for what they are, and don’t quantify their effects. Vermeulen highlights the “unholy trinity” that accounts for this myopia.

• Bad habits are often (wrongly) associated with success. The practices employed by the leading companies in all industries are supposed to bring success, meaning they are imitated far and wide. But this is a mistake: success is a complex alchemy that is difficult (if not impossible) to duplicate. For instance, Japanese companies thrived in the 1980s thanks to the concept of total quality management (TQM). But when other organizations copied and pasted TQM out of context, the positive effects were not replicated. In fact, that same technique generated bad habits among its followers. Leaders also have their own idiosyncrasies: imitating them can mean introducing failings that a less robust organization will find harder to bear. Furthermore, any winning recipe has an expiration date: habits that were beneficial at one point can become outdated and harmful, especially in an environment that calls for never-ending adaptation.


Excerpt from Business Digest N°294, March 2019

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Point of view

Harmful habits : get rid of them once and for all

Interview with Michael Levie


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