Ingredients of change

Earlier, we've introduced our wagon metaphor for change and next time we will go deeper into specific tactics for each target group. But before doing that, we wanted to share some general principles on changing behaviour in organizations, based on the extensive research in the field and our humble experience.

The probability that people change their behaviour depends on 3 factors 1) the level to which they understand that they must change 2) the level to which they want to change and 3) the level to which they can change, in other words:  MUST*WANT*CAN or Drive*Motivation*Ability. These 3 factors hold the ingredients to make individual, lasting, behavioural change in organizations happen.


Paint a picture that draws attention

Vision is the dominant sense and visual language, metaphors and pictures are important change tools.
Drive is about understanding why the current behaviour no longer is appropriate and that something else is needed. But, past experience shape expectations and these influence our perceptions. Basically this strong cognitive process filters what you see, based on what you expect. Attention has proven to be the key to create new connections in the brain and see new things, even on a biological level.
That is visual language is so important it highlights and adds contrast...and thus draws attention. 


Touch the emotions

Wanting to change is primary an emotional factor. Rationally wanting something is just not enough. You have to tap into emotional sources. In individual coaching I’ve met dozens of managers who know what to do (delegate, make decisions, treat people better…). It’s only when they feel the effect of this behaviour on themselves and others, there is a chance for change.

On that note, personal fear doesn’t work. Many people use the ‘If you don’t do this (change), then … (negative consequence)’. This doesn’t move people, it paralyses.


Grass doesn’t grow by pulling it.

The reality is you can’t change people’s behaviour for them; they have to do it themselves. So the motivational factor needs to be there. You can support it, reinforce, maybe even grow it, but you can’t create it, you'll have to do with whatever is there. In the words of my former psychology Professor: “Grass doesn’t grow by pulling it.”


Don’t waste time Unwanting

‘Unwanting’ something doesn’t work. For a long time people have believed you had to unlearn behaviour before you could change into something else.  Research shows this is not the case, it is much more effective and efficient to just concentrate on doing something else. Which I think is good news.


Don’t count on an epiphany

We could define an epiphany as a situation that provokes such extreme levels of the need and want factors that it overpowers all obstacles for radical change. This type of overwhelming experience is indeed a way to change behaviour, even lives, but… it’s rather rare.
Still, if you look at change programs, organizations severely overvalue the importance of motivation and use so much energy to try to provoke or organize collective epiphany. 


Script actions

The people wanting to be more productive, slimmer, eat healthier and still procrastinate, are out of shape and eat junkfood are countless. Knowing and Wanting to change is essentially needed, but not simply enough.
The fastest way to make sure behaviour is done is to make it very specific and verifiable. We must avoid the possibility to negotiate with ourselves. “Be more commercial” is vague and can’t be measured; but “Call at least 1 old contact everyday” is different. It is much more difficult to rationalize not doing it.


Eat your elephant in pieces

Q: How do you eat an elephant? A: fork by fork. It’s an old and silly joke and still it is very true with regards to change. A lot of people do the equivalent of competing in high jump and distance jump simultaneously.
Focus on changing ONE behaviour to change at a time and sequence the change if it includes more.
Next to the advantage that it actually changes something right away (even if small)! It also has a positive effect on motivation. There’s little that motivates us more than the feeling of success.


Social context

The social environment is very influential in behaviour. Both social pressure and social support tempt us to behave in a specific way.  Think of a known mantra “If you want to become X (slim, creative, fashionable, …) hang around X people”. 

In an organization, this is a very interesting challenge. Who are these people? Are they in or out the dominant coalition (they usually are out!), Do they include the boss/ the organisations’ leadership (is should)?

Social support can also come in the form of training and coaching. It even is often at least as important as the content of the training, communities that have collectively reflected on the change at hand.   



Personal identity is a powerful force. People don’t understand as long things are framed in their old identity. If being a couch potato is part of who I am, I don’t see the need for change (even if I want to be fit). You need a powerful, new, positive image you can relate to.


Change the environment: barriers and triggers

And last but not least, people unnecessary torture themselves by over-relying on willpower. I for example, I have to admit; I have a bad sweet tooth. Eating health is going well for me, except for the sweets. It is impossible if I’m surrounded by sweets. So I have to make sure I’m not in places where there are a lot of sweets AND I always have a healthy snack lying around.  

We need to remove every possible barrier between the new behaviour and ourselves. I know countless people complaining that certain software is underused. When you then dive in to it, it is practically impossible to use. Looking for absolute lowest threshold on time, location dependency and difficulty to use is much more interesting than all sorts of motivational communications in that case. .
The impact of triggers is powerful. By shaping tools, environments and choices, you can gently guide (trick) yourself (or others) to new behaviour.

Summing up: the ingredients change to behaviour is to start with motivation, adapt the environment to do one small, specific, but significant thing differently, establish a relationship with a group of people accustomed to that behaviour and grow from there to a new definition of your identity.


This is the second post in our series on behaviour change in organizations and an abstract from the forthcoming workbook on behavioural change in organizations by kite.