I have been spinning like a top since reading “The Power of Habit,” New York Times journalist Charles Duhigg’s fascinating best-seller about how people, businesses and organizations develop the positive routines that make them productive — and happy.
When veteran entrepreneur Tim Ogilvie, a District-based business consultant, told me his job involves getting people to turn actions into habits, I perked up.
He is working on big stuff, like changes in the habits of health-care workers and patients that will add years to people’s lives.
And he is sweating smaller stuff, like helping greeting-card employees come up with a hit for the holiday season.
One health-care assignment involved Pfizer. Sales of the pharmaceutical giant’s Nicorette pill and patch to help people quit smoking were flat.
Ogilvie’s firm, Peer Insight, helped the company build loyalty among customers by setting up a phone-based coaching service for users of the drug. The coaches helped people establish new habits for dealing with stress, such as eating a carrot or carrying on a conversation with a colleague — and using Nicorette — instead of lighting up.
He produced similar results for Hallmark, the greeting-card company. A group of employees had stopped participating in an interoffice contest designed to bring new ideas to market because they were getting negative feedback on their proposals. In other words, they were losing.
Ogilvie’s team had to figure out a way to keep everyone involved. Their answer was to have more-frequent, shorter contests that let more people win, boosting positive feedback, the trigger for habit formation.
Ogilvie, 54, is an interesting guy who has been circulating in Washington’s entrepreneur scene for years, with stops at the Kaiser Associates consulting firm (founded by Michael Kaiser, president of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts) and at a start-up focusing on mail lockboxes called Brivo Systems, from which he cashed out about 10 years ago.
What I learned from my two-hour interview with the practicing Buddhist is his belief in the ability of habit to change people’s lives for the better. He sprinkles his e-mails with sayings such as this one from Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh:
“Habit energy is the most powerful force in the universe.”
Ogilvie’s 14-person consulting firm, Peer Insight, grosses a couple million dollars a year from projects that last several months and range from $100,000 to $400,000 a pop. The clients are generally big corporations such as Hewlett-Packard, Intel, Computer Sciences, Procter & Gamble, Kimberly-Clark, and organizations such as AARP and the Good Samaritan Society.
Much of the work involves training a client’s employees how to treat customers. A two-day workshop that helps middle managers might cost $30,000.
Ogilvie earns a healthy income that I am pretty sure ranges from the low- to mid-six figures. For that, he works about 55 hours a week at his Capitol Hill offices on Pennsylvania Avenue SE.
“When you want to create a new customer experience, that’s where we come in,” he said. “The thing we found we are good at is introducing new services that help develop really sustainable habits.”
As a patron of nice hotels, one of my favorite examples is the software that helps train hotel front-desk clerks to recognize the difference between a good customer and a great one. Why? The good customer gets a discount if they have a legitimate complaint; a great one gets a free room.
Or the nursing-home provider that wanted its customers to move around more, practice good hygiene, take their medicine and — just maybe — live longer. One possible solution: provide a family photo frame, now in development, that doubles as a message board from friends and family that reminds seniors about good habits.
Then there’s the auto insurer that wanted its fleet customers to cut down on accidents. Solution: put a device in the vehicle that tracks driving habits, including real-time beeps if people drive too fast or brake too severely. Drivers would get rated on the quality of their driving — red, green or yellow — giving them a benchmark to improve on. The drivers developed teams and competed against one another on results, which appealed to the habit of pride in job expertise.
After graduating with an English degree from the University of Virginia in 1980, Ogilvie entered the Army as an ROTC graduate, emerging four years later with the rank of captain.
It was in the Army, Ogilvie said, that he learned the importance of forming habits. He commanded a battery of 155mm howitzers in West Germany, smack in the path of the Soviet army if World War III had broken out.
After the Army, he earned a master’s in engineering at Georgia Tech, then went to work at what was then the Price Waterhouse accounting firm in New York.
He left his $160,000-a-year job in 1995 and joined Kaiser Associates, where he made $500,000 a year advising businesses that were being disrupted by this new thing called the Internet.
He and two colleagues left Kaiser in 1998 to start Brivo, which built special safeboxes for mail deliveries that would notify the homeowner when something had been dropped off, such as the book from Amazon.com or the pills from the pharmaceuticals company.
Brivo is still around, but Ogilvie cashed out about 10 years ago and took a year off to travel with his family.
He wanted to start his own company, with himself as majority owner, that incorporated what he had learned in the Army about getting people to do the right thing.
He created Peer Insight in 2003 with his own money, using his extensive network of business contacts to win his first clients, cold-calling old associates.
“I have a real bias of learning through action,” Ogilvie said. “Through action, you can build a little confidence and surprise yourself by causing this thing to happen. It’s the habit loop. You place a small bet, you get a little win, you get positive feedback, and then you place a bigger bet. It’s how I built my company, or done anything worth doing.”
For previous Value Added columns, go to washingtonpost.com/business.