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Behaviour First – a New Year’s Resolution

Realising the business benefits of transformation means putting behaviour first

It’s a few weeks into the new year and your gym kit is gathering dust on the shelf, you’re already four behind on your one-book-a-week promise, and Dry January has been more like a monsoon. Yet a couple of months ago you swore that this year you’d get fit, read more, and cut down on drinking. 

You’re an intelligent, motivated person who said you’d do all these things, so why haven’t you? 

The truth is, changing behaviour is really, really difficult. 

And if it’s so hard to change your own behaviour, how on earth can you hope to change anyone else’s?

This isn’t just a problem for would-be dieters, exercisers, and tee-totallers, it’s a real issue for organisations. In a rapidly changing world, the ability to transform is widely identified as a key source of competitive advantage. Transformation involves changing systems, processes, and organisational structures, but ultimately true Transformation is always about changing human behaviour.

Traditional Change management approaches lean heavily on communication and training to influence behaviour. This seems to make sense - “if only we can provide people with the right information, then they’ll make the right choice and change their behaviour accordingly” - right? Hence the flurry of communication which characterises most projects - posters, flyers, emails, websites, videos, Yammer posts and the like.

How effective is this? Well, think about your New Year’s Resolutions. Do you lack information on the benefits of exercise? Would better communication of the value of cutting your alcohol intake persuade you to forsake that after-work glass of wine? 

Communication is an integral part of any project - people need to know what’s happening, when it’s happening, and most importantly why. As a means of actually changing behaviour, however, communication is often highly ineffective, as much of the Behavioural Science literature makes clear.

So how do you change behaviour? 

Behavioural Science provides some answers. Since the publication of Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein’s popular book “Nudge” and the subsequent foundation of the UK government’s Behavioural Insights Team in 2010, there has been an explosion in attempts to practically apply Behavioural Science to real world challenges. 

A December 2018 World Bank study identifies more than 200 dedicated Behavioural Insights teams within state and national governments globally. Companies from an array of sectors including banking, insurance, health, retail, technology, utilities, and media have setup Behavioural Insights units; while countless others are using Behavioural Insights techniques in product design or marketing.

Behavioural Insights is about practically applying theory from a range of social and behavioural sciences including Anthropology, Economics, Neuroscience, Psychology and Sociology to better understand the true drivers of human behaviour and to design effective behavioural change interventions. While the science can be complex, many of the interventions are devastatingly simple, relying on subtle changes in incentive structures, the way that information is presented, or how choices are framed. 

There are countless examples. Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport infamously nudged their male visitors to help reduce cleaning costs via strategically placed pictures of flies in the bathrooms. In the UK, switching the default for pension enrolment from opt-out to opt-in resulted in roughly 10 million more people saving for retirement. A study on tax compliance showed that informing taxpayers that more than 90% of taxpayers had already complied with their obligations increased the likelihood of tax compliance fourfold, whereas threatening taxpayers with the risks of punishment for noncompliance had no effect. 

What these examples have in common is their focus on understanding - and changing - the behaviour of consumers. Examples of employee-focussed Behavioural Change initiatives are rarer. But employees are humans too. Behavioural Insights can be applied just as effectively to internal initiatives, particularly large, complex, business critical transformations which ultimately depend on shifting human behaviour. 

To apply Behavioural Insights to Transformation the crucial first step is adopting a “Behaviour First” mindset. If we want to understand and change behaviour, we need to start by thinking about behaviour and talking about behaviour. Specifically a Behavioural Insights approach focuses on identifying current and target behaviour, understanding behavioural drivers, analysing the barriers and enablers to behavioural change, and then designing and implementing targeted interventions. Those interventions could be as simple as changing incentives, or they could use more complex techniques drawn from Behavioural Economics and Psychology.

Changing behaviour is hard. It’s also critically important for organisational transformations to fully realise intended business benefits. In a rapidly changing world, organisations that can’t transform successfully will struggle to survive. So often though, organisations allow transformations to fail because their approach to behavioural change is little more than glorified New Year’s Resolutions.

If we want to change behaviour, we need to start thinking about behaviour and talking about behaviour. If we want to transform organisations we need to put behaviour first. Let’s make “Behaviour First” a New Year’s Resolution that lasts beyond the end of January.