Habits and routines are extremely powerful, especially when we recognize what triggers them. If done well, they can be harnessed to improve our lives both at work and at home.
In July of 2016, I transitioned into research management at Facebook. I had spent my two previous years there working as an individual contributor (“IC”), and for six years before that, I was in academia. So while I have been a researcher for most of my adult life, conducting research and managing researchers were two different things.
On its face, management shouldn’t be much of a challenge. You’ve likely already had some success as an IC, racking up wins and impressing your managers. They’ve given you validation by entrusting you to lead your own team. In other words, you’ve made it clear you know the material, and they’ve made it clear that they’ve noticed. But whether you’re in research or design or marketing or accounting, knowing your stuff is only one tool that a manager needs to be successful.
Why Habits are Critical
Here’s an example involving a common household product many of us are familiar with: In 1998, Procter & Gamble struggled to get consumers to connect with one of its newest products — an odor-eliminating spray called Febreze. The product was marketed as a way to get rid of those strong odors that linger in your home or on your clothes. The problem, they found, was that the people most in need of a product that eliminates odors — those who, for instance, had the smelliest homes or clothes — were often unaware the smells existed.
“If you live with nine cats, you become desensitized to their scents,” journalist Charles Duhigg, wrote of P&G’s Febreze dilemma in his 2012 book The Power of Habit. “If you smoke cigarettes, eventually you don’t smell smoke anymore.”
Worried they had a dud on their hands, P&G set out to determine why Febreze wasn’t landing with customers. It turns out, they hadn’t yet figured out how important habits are in our daily lives. The company launched a massive research campaign, interviewing scores of users, asking each why they used the product. They eventually noticed a pattern: most frequent Febreze users didn’t use it to eliminate odors, they used it as a final touch once they finished cleaning a room. “Spraying it feels like a little mini-celebration when I’m done with a room!” one woman told a researcher who interviewed her.
Febreze had become part of a habit loop for its users. The cue was cleaning a room, the routine was spraying Febreze when they were finished and the reward was a fresh-smelling room.
The researchers went back to P&G’s marketing team and told them their initial campaigns had been all wrong — Febreze’s “power users” looked at the product as a reward for completing their cleaning routine. The company launched a new marketing campaign around this idea and within two months sales had doubled.
Which brings us back to Facebook.
When I transitioned roles from research “doer” (“IC”) to research manager, I immediately felt triggered by uncertainty: Am I ready to be a manager? How will I communicate with my team? Is what got me here enough to prepare me for what comes next?
The way I saw it, I’d spent my entire career, to that point, conducting semi-structured interviews, creating participatory design exercises, analyzing results, and presenting my findings. Pretty standard. But as a manager, I now had to divide my job into two buckets: One, I was responsible for my team, their personal goals, and career trajectories; Two, I was responsible for the company, its goals, and the needs of our stakeholders. I just needed to figure out how to adapt those research habits and skills to fit my new role and a new set of team members.
This is where leveraging my routine and strong habits come in. I decided to try and leverage the research methods and skills that I had developed over the years to drive both product and organizational impact. If researchers are uniquely trained and experienced in understanding people’s needs and motivations, why not use those skills in a management context? Just because I had become a manager and was no longer an IC, the skills I had didn’t go away. The audience just changed.
I doubled down on routines that usually led to the reward of actionable next steps. I conducted a “literature review” and read articles and books about management. I listened to podcasts to hear from the greats. I “interviewed” and met with long-time experts in the field for advice. I “surveyed” the “power users” or cross-functional stakeholders of researchers to learn what made strong partners, and used open-ended questions to dive deeper into strategies, needs, and wants.
Habits in Practice — Go Beyond the 1:1
One of a manager’s most important jobs is to know and understand her team. When we transition from doer to manager, too often we tend to be so hyper-focused on the work our team is responsible for that we neglect or shy away from the people-management side of the role. I wanted to make sure I could be the best advocate I could be for my ICs, but I also wanted to learn how I could best align their needs with the company’s overall goals.
For instance, conversations with ICs about their career goals or what is important to them can be some of the hardest conversations a manager will have. How do you breach the topic of role changes or a person’s lack of leadership initiative? Goals may not always align with the company’s needs, could be unrealistic, or maybe don’t fit with their individual team’s objectives.
What habit can I turn to? What routines can I leverage?
I began considering some UX research methods that help with unpacking ambiguous concepts, prioritization, and identifying next steps. If I was working with study participants, I would probably create a card sort exercise to help learn how they understand, process and categorize different ideas about our product. So what if I tried to do the same thing with my team?
That’s where the Career Conversation Card Sort was born. It was a game-changer for me.
I gave them cards with all sorts of career concepts on them: things like Visibility, Recognition, Work-Life Balance, Promotion or Role Change. Then I had them group the cards in ways that made sense for them, similar to what we would do for our users. I learned that, for one person, having impact might be more important than work-life balance, while another might prioritize learning and development over a promotion.
By taking a research method we understood, applying it in a different context, and getting personalized results, I could level with team members much better than I would have if we were just sitting down for one-on-ones. The card sort provided enough structure while creating space to discuss areas of interest and career goals.
Making the jump from IC to manager is a challenge for anyone, regardless of their discipline. But by leveraging the strong habits we developed as individual contributors, the mountain we have ahead of us won’t be nearly as difficult to climb. Of course, there are always leadership skills we pick up along the way and not everything we did as ICs carry over to our new leadership roles. But management is less about learning on the job and more about taking what we already know and using it to inform our next set of habits. After all, it’s what got us here, isn’t it?