Each year, roughly half of all Americans (up from a quarter during the Great Depression) set their sights on their New Year's Resolutions. It's an old tradition. The origin of the New Year's Resolution reportedly comes from the Babylonians making promises to the gods in exchange for good favor in the coming year. In the Medieval Era, the knights often took a post-Christmas vow to re-commit themselves to chivalry (something many of us should consider). When the ball drops in New York City's Times Square once again this year--a 118 year tradition--most will waive a renewed interest in opening doors for ladies or looking for a fruitful harvest, opting for weight loss, reading more, spending more time with the kids, etc. The concept is rooted in an annual commitment to self-improvement--but to many it's just a concept.

A 2007 University of Bristol study of 3,000 people revealed that 88% of New Year resolutions fail to be met, despite the fact that half of the study's participants were confident of success at the time of making the resolution. Those achieving their goals more often than average engaged in measurable goal-setting, made their goals public, and got support from their friends and colleagues. Also, talking with a counselor about setting goals and New Year resolutions was found to help people keep their resolutions.

Individuals can set plans, set goals, and look for support when looking to make improvements to the way they live, behave, act, etc. Yet, it takes more than a drunken, 12:01 a.m. proclamation to make an intended change happen and stick. The same is true for organizations. After all, organizations are made up of a collection of people and are therefore a reflection of those individuals. (Note: I am not claiming that organizations are individuals, as the Supreme Court has wrongly decreed in recent rulings, but rather, that the behavior and output of organizations are determined, in the end, by collective, individual action--an oxymoron of sorts.)

The 2008 book Influencer: The Power to Change Anything by Kerry Patterson et al. starts to get to the heart of making resolutions stick--be they individual or organizational resolutions. Pulling from the organizational behavior and culture, change management, and social psychology literature, Patterson and crew identify a framework for making change happen. Exploring two critical areas--Motivation and Ability--they capture six sources of influence rooted in the individual, the society, and the structural design of the operating environment. Yet, the key concept that's emphasized--and adapted from the earlier work of Edgar Schein, Rosabeth Moss Kanter, John Kotter, and others--is that of identifying and changing "vital behaviors."

Weight loss by an individual, or improved environmental performance by an organization, are outcomes, not behaviors. It is our behaviors, and often only a few critical or "vital" ones, that manufacture outcomes. As Patterson's crew state, "Master influencers know that a few vital behaviors can drive big change. They look carefully for the vital behaviors that create a cascade of change. No matter the size of the problem, if you dilute your efforts across the dozens of behaviors, you'll never reach critical mass."

This is a point to seriously consider. For the hefty individual desperate, but unable year-after-year, to lose those 30 pounds, the mistake may be on working on too many behaviors, and not the right ones. Maybe the vital behavior is going to bed too late. Earlier bedtime reduces TV-induced snacking, leads to more sleep (which helps burn calories and reduces stress which also leads to less stress-eating), causes an earlier wake-up time, and leads to more time and energy in the morning to exercise. One vital behavior leading to a cascade of change.

For the business resolved to become more focused on protection of the natural environment as a part of its core business strategy, maybe the vital behavior is the lack of any systematic, periodic reporting on goal-achievement to upper management. Or maybe it's the lack of upper management support for the "idea" of environmental management excellence in the form of no written Environmental Policy or bonus-related environmental management goal-setting. Or maybe, as is often the case, the vital organizational behavior missing is a simple lack of training for staff.

So make your resolutions this year. Set measurable goals. Make them public (whether to your friends or on your company website). Seek advice and support from friends, colleagues, consultants, and outside experts. In the end, however, also work hard to identify the few vital behaviors that are currently stifling the change sought. And change them.

Now off to bed, it’s getting late.