3 Steps to Change Behaviour at Scale

Have you ever set yourself a New Years’ resolution? Did you manage to stick to it and develop a new habit?

If your answer is ‘no’, don’t be disheartened! Even with the best will and determination in the world, changing our own behaviour, especially if that behaviour has become an ingrained habit, can be really difficult. Why? Because if you repeat a behaviour enough times, eventually your brain will try to automate the decision making.

Take learning to drive, for example.  In your first few driving lessons, you’re carefully thinking about every small decision and manoeuvre; but once you’ve passed the test and have been driving for a while, from time to time you’ll drive from A to B on complete autopilot. This example shows that when you try to change a habit, you’re competing with automated decision making. We’re wired to do things without thinking.

Why care about habits? Because at the core of all organisational change there are people, and all people in one way or another have habits. The success of any change programme hinges upon people choosing to act or behave in a new way, so if you don’t consider what those behaviours are or the challenges of changing habits, even the most logical, well-executed and compelling of change strategies will fall short.

And if you thought changing your own behaviour was hard, imagine how hard it can be to change how other people behave. People you haven’t and probably won’t ever meet. People who make up a whole organisation’s workforce. That’s when it gets REALLY difficult.

So what small steps can you take to start embedding change effectively?

  1. Be deliberate. Behaviours don’t just change because you want them to. Anyone who has ever tried to shift a habit, such as starting a new exercise regime or eating less chocolate, will know that you have to work hard at it and take deliberate action to make sure the change sticks. The same applies when you’re trying to change habits across an organisation – you need to take a deliberate approach by creating a change strategy and plan that has the specific end goal of changing behaviour. You can do this by drawing upon the theories and knowledge of biases and heuristics from behavioural science. For example, an experiment conducted by Harvard Business School revealed that people place a higher value on things they helped to create themselves. The study found that participants who created their own origami frogs believed their creations were worth 5 times more than potential buyers did. This aptly named ‘Ikea effect’ can be exploited in your change strategy - if staff are involved in designing and co-creating the change, they are more likely to show increased levels of engagement and motivation to shift their behaviour.
  2. Get specific. Get specific about the goal you’re trying to reach, and the decisions and actions you need people to take to get there. This entails taking your change programme’s vision statement and breaking it down to define the specific behaviours you need people to exhibit in order to achieve success. For example, if you want your organisation to foster innovation, you need people to ‘be more innovative’. Everyone will interpret this behaviour in slightly different ways based on their own understanding of the word ‘innovation’ and their past experiences, so if you want to instill this behaviour consistently and at scale, get specific. Do this by encouraging people to ‘take risks’, ‘voice their ideas’ and ‘challenge the status quo’. Now no one is in any doubt as to what ‘innovation’ means in practice, and by getting specific with your target behaviours it becomes easier to design precise and effective interventions to achieve them
  3. Start small. Starting small means picking a few habits to begin with and building on them. By incrementally making small changes to the way people work, the scale of the change will feel more manageable and you won’t discourage people by setting targets too big. Take, for example, preparing to run a marathon - you don’t set out on your first practice jog with the aim of running 26 miles. You start with a smaller distance and then build over time. If you want your organisation to “be more innovative”, you might start by implementing interventions that encourage people to “voice their ideas” before moving onto the more uncomfortable “challenging the status quo”.

By starting small you can help yourself too - you can make the scale of the challenge less overwhelming and build a structured approach for what many deem a ‘fluffy’ and ‘intangible’ problem. By allowing yourself the time to learn from each new habit you try to instill, you can continually iterate and improve your approach.

So what have we learnt about changing the behaviours of others at scale? Don’t shy away from the size of the challenge, it’s all about taking that first step and being clear about your destination. And remember to be deliberate, get specific, and start small.

What habits will you start trying to change in your organisation?