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October 22, 2019

Time and Handles: Two Tools to Institutionalize Things

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I wrote a blog post a while ago about the story behind the phrase “My pleasure” and Chick-fil-A.

Here’s the short version: Chick-fil-A founder Truett Cathy was traveling many years ago and heard a hotel employee answer a guest’s “Thank you” with “My pleasure.” Cathy liked it and decided that phrase would be a good touch at his restaurants. So he came to the next Chick-fil-A owner/operator’s convention and shared that directive. For three straight years he shared at the convention the instruction to answer every “Thank you” with “My pleasure,” and eventually it stuck. Today, Chick-fil-A employees nationwide respond to “thanks” with “My pleasure.” The consistency is unbelievable.

For our purposes today, though, I wanted to point out that they didn’t just have one annual meeting where the CEO declared something and it happened. Real change takes time and takes structure. You’ve got to give people time to adjust and things to latch on to.

In other words, institutionalizing things takes what I call “time and handles.”

Time

In this 2017 New York Times article, Carl Richards writes, “Many of life’s choices fall into two categories: Option A: Exciting and complex and quick, but the action rarely works. Option B: Boring and simple and slow but it works nearly all the time. I have been thinking a lot about why we are so intrigued by Option A.”

He’s totally right.

Has it always been this way or is it because of the past decades where everything happens in hyperspeed? As a culture, we are horrible at waiting, and yet change, lasting change, requires waiting.

Don’t get lost on the word “change” here either. Think of it as “progress.” How do you make true, sustainable progress in anything? Sure, one step forward in the right direction is good, but it’s really a month or a decade of steps in the right direction that you need.

Jerry Seinfeld is known for popularizing the “Don’t Break the Chain” method of building habits, which basically goes like this: Get a calendar, and write a red X on the day where you performed the habit. Keep doing that every day and don’t break the chain.

In other words, it takes time. (Here’s Seinfeld again talking about the joke-writing process, where he leads with, “It takes a whole lot of time.”)

Where does your organization or company need to grow? What is the culture you want? What organizational chart do you want? What skillset do you want? Whatever the category, it won’t happen overnight, but given time …

Handles

Time alone, of course, isn’t enough. Just letting the clock and calendar work, won’t produce progress on their own. Usually, we must be applying the right effort in the right measure. If you plant a tomato plant but forget to give it water and sunshine, well, see how that works. Time alone isn’t usually enough.

Organizationally speaking, handles are the answer to the question, “How are we going to put this into practice?” How are we going to improve, develop, evaluate? Chick-fil-A was aiming to improve its customer relations, and “My pleasure” was a handle to do so.

According to recent research, 92% of people don’t fulfill their goals. Part of the solution, according to this article and many others, is to break down the big goal into small manageable steps without losing sight of the big goal. It’s the old adage: “The way to eat an elephant is to do it one bite at a time.” These bites, these manageable steps, are the handles.

Chip Heath, the author of Switch, says it this way, “Until you can ladder your way down from a change idea to a specific behavior, you’re not ready to lead a switch.”

If our goal is to [fill in the blank], what are the two or three big steps to get there? The process is the same whether you are aiming to improve sales or develop an employee. What small step can we put into practice immediately and form a habit (e.g. “My pleasure”) that will take us a step down the road toward the final destination?

Conclusion

It is common for us to declare something we want changed or something new we want to infuse into our family or company culture. But clarifying something and institutionalizing something are not the same work. You must do more than have a clever phrase, slick packaging, an emotional appeal, or a dreadful consequence if the idea isn’t embraced. You must have an institutionalizing process of some kind. I know at least two elements in that process:

You gotta give it some time and have some handles.

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