Process vs. Habit: The Neuroscience Behind Your Software Selection

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In small businesses, where employees wear many different hats, processes are sometimes just habits formed over the years.
Source:, “The Importance of Evaluating Processes During the Inventory Management Software Search

When I came across this quote from Mark Canes, President at Blue Link Associates, it immediately caught my attention. Why? Simply put, it nails one of the main issues facing any business. Essentially: If you’re not careful, it’s often inertia rather than reason which dictates how things get done.

Mark went on to elaborate:
For the most part, processes are agreed upon, collective ways of performing a task – something that has been discussed and analyzed in order to achieve a particular end goal and often in such a way that adds value. On the other hand, a habit is an action repeated regularly as part of a routine and is most likely performed in a subconscious or unintentional manner.​
This insight is applicable to all types of business management issues. However, it grabbed me because it starts to solve some riddles related to business software I’ve long considered:
  • Why do some companies invest successfully in technologies that truly help solve their core business issues, while others miss the mark so wildly?
  • And, how can two companies—often in the same line of business and facing the same challenges—vary so dramatically in terms of the benefit they derive from the same piece of software?
These are complicated questions. There are lots of factors that contribute to their answers. However, it’s clear that we need to pay attention to the difference between crafting processes versus relying on unexamined habits.

The reality is that companies who begin their software selection without focused attention on process evaluation generally don’t end up making the best possible software decision. The reason why is actually fairly basic; they’re simply not looking for the right thing. The old saw is that repeating the same behavior and expecting a different result is the definition of insanity. Companies expecting improvement while sourcing a solution to support the status quo, unfortunately, meet the same definition.

Additionally, if your business doesn’t seriously evaluate existing processes, you’re unlikely to effectively leverage your software—even if you do stumble on a good fit. Automation features, new workflows, improved approvals control, and advanced reporting capabilities are all great— but they require the willingness to invest the time in understanding a new way of going about things in order to deliver benefits.

Interestingly, modern neuroscience asserts that it is, in fact, our old unexamined habits which are often responsible for obstructing optimization:
Neuroscientists have traced our habit-making behaviors to a part of the brain called the basal ganglia, which also plays a key role in the development of emotions, memories and pattern recognition. Decisions, meanwhile, are made in a different part of the brain called the prefrontal cortex. But as soon as a behavior becomes automatic, the decision-making part of your brain goes into a sleep mode of sorts.
Source: NPR, “Habits: How They Form And How To Break Them”​
In other words, our habits trigger a biological mechanism that limits our ability to assess our behavior, literally decreasing our chances to break negative patterns and improve.

The act of evaluating software can initiate the opposite effect. A software purchase isn’t just an opportunity to increase technical capabilities. It’s also a disruption to our routine. If we allow it to, it can present the opportunity to seek out true process improvement, while providing a system for effecting the changes we identify as beneficial.

Understanding the subtle difference between processes and habits—and even what neuroscience says on the subject—is nice. But real value comes from translating the idea into action. Applying these concepts to software evaluation provides the opportunity.

How do you transform a long-held, potentially limiting habit into an optimized process? It begins with active analysis. Leverage your software purchase as an opportunity to seek out improvement; start with a self-check where you critically answer the following questions:
  • What’s driven your interest in thinking about changing software? Is it an upcoming support contract termination or a similarly external factor? Or, are you responding to the recognition of a need to improve how things are done?
  • Have you modeled your processes to look for opportunities to improve?
  • Users generally don’t want to be viewed as complainers. Have you given them permission to identify broken processes and bad habits that need updating?
  • Are you working with vendors to get their take on areas to improve which you may have missed or are you just seeking out a match for a pre-established set of features?
  • Are you seeking out software that will allow you the flexibility to adapt processes and continually improve, or will your options lock you into bad habits?

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