07 Nov 2015

Are The 7 Habits Still Relevant for Business?

The 7 Habits that Covey raises are:

  1. Be Proactive
  2. Begin with the end in mind
  3. Put first things first (prioritising and planning)
  4. Thinking win-win
  5. Seek first to understand then to be understood;
  6. Synergize (combining peoples’ strengths); improving one’s attitude;
  7. “Sharpen the saw”: make sure to renew one’s personal energy and protect one’s health.

David James and several of the people he quotes put forward the argument that many of the things that Covey raises in his 7 Habits have become part of management practice and common sense. My response is that common sense isn’t that common, both at junior, middle and senior management levels.

Habit 2 – Begin With The End in Mind

Let’s start with Habit 2 – Begin with the End in Mind. It has been said that this is now the equivalent of a vision statement. In my opinion, it is much more than that (although I have to ask, how many people either have their own vision statement, or could state what the vision of their business was? Very few I am guessing).  Habit 2 is more than a vision statement – it is about developing a clear picture of what the future state should look like before you start doing it, so that you can create the steps required to get there. It is an opportunity to process re-engineer a problem before it has taken place, and map out the required steps to get there. I know there are many people that might say ‘but isn’t that what a vision statement does?’ In the true, correct use of a vision statement, you would probably be correct. In practice though, very few senior managers and very few businesses make the link between their business vision and what happens day-to-day. Very few staff at lower levels can make the link between the vision and everyday work, because often the people that came up with the vision stopped at that – stating the vision. Part of the cleverness of Covey’s Habit 2 is its use of words – begin with the end in mind, not end with the end in mind. Coming up with the vision or end state is just the start – there is then an expectation that you would work backwards to see what has to be done in stages to achieve that vision.

The other thing I love about Habit 2 is that when introduced to junior Managers, it encourages then to take time out and plan, when often they are expected and encouraged to deal with the hear and now and ‘firefight’. Taking 5 minutes to consider the end state and how to get there can often be a revelation for junior managers, because they have never been encouraged to do it. Good planning and evaluation is one difference between a junior manager and a more senior one (we would hope!) and Covey provides a simple tool to start the process.

Habit 3 – Put First Things First

Habit 3 is all about managing your time effectively, which in my experience, a large amount of Managers do poorly. Wasted time, wasted effort, poor prioritising (if there is any prioritising at all) and a lack of focus – these are the time management skills that are often exhibited by junior and middle managers. Often this isn’t by accident; managers at these levels are expected to deal with urgent issues from their direct reports quickly and effectively – ‘firefighting’ – fixing all the little crises that occur in a business to keep things on track. The problem is that often firefighting becomes a drug for managers; they can fall into the trip of only feeling like they are doing their job if it is urgent, immediate and for their direct reports. Low level and mid-level planning such as training, managing performance and planning go out the window because it isn’t urgent. Covey’s 4-quadrant model of urgency versus importance sounds simple enough, but it still has profound effects on junior and middle Managers. Often when this group takes a short time to analyse what they do in a day, they find they have spent most days focussing on urgent but unimportant tasks (such as emails, firefighting and interruptions) rather than spending a proportion of their time on important tasks such as training, coaching and managing performance. Covey’s Quadrant in Habit 3 provides a sense of assurance for junior Managers in knowing that it is OK to do more than firefight.

Discussing further habits is more than one little blog post can handle! In short, Covey’s 7 Habits are just as relevant today as they were when they were first published. In my opinion, the habits will become irrelevant when senior Managers demonstrate the 7 Habits consistently themselves, with their middle and junior managers copying that behaviour because ‘that is how it is done around here’.

Perhaps the better question to ask would be ‘Why hasn’t the coaching, training and example provided by senior Managers made the teaching of the 7 Habits irrelevant?’

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