Demystifying Behavior Change

We had the pleasure of being a featured speaker at a sustainability conference to share our thinking on Behavior Change within the industry. What follows are our talking points:

There is an almost constant push asking this industry to transform, change and adapt.

In some instances, the push is coming from seen and unforeseen social, political or economic forces.

In other instances, the push is from an internal force that is seeking a new way to add value through sustainable practices.

In all instances, we are witnessing leaders and organizations who are seeking viable solutions to meet ever changing demands.

I make my living on an embarrassingly simple task—reminding those who are working on viable solutions of any kind that they will eventually have to deal with the human condition – the inescapable fact that everyday behaviors of people will dictate if a particular solution, a change in how you do things or an adaptation to one your products, will reach the level of success you intend.

We believe the greater the understanding of the behaviors associated with your solution, the greater the likelihood that your solution will be viable. Toward that end, I want to take a few minutes to demystify this idea of behavior change a little.

Let’s start with the straight-up definition for behavior change:

Any transformation or modification of human behavior.

Here is how we have evolved the definition for organizations or businesses:

Any transformation or modification of human behavior necessary to fulfill an intention to the upper end of what’s possible.

Given the members who have shown up here today, I would safely assume there are many types of intentions out there –it’s that action you are hoping will help someone adopt or use a new best practice or technology.

What most of you probably hold in common is that your intentions are focused on the changes necessary to effectively address a social, political or economic disruption. 

The truth is that you are going to end up spending the same amount of money, resources and time whether you achieve 20% or 80% of your intentions for change. So, how might you achieve an intention to the upper end of what is possible?

We think understanding how to influence behavior change is the difference maker.

It starts with recognizing the relatively straightforward science behind the stages people go through to adopt any new behavior.

  1. Being Preoccupied - Everyone starts in state of preoccupation. We all live incredibly busy lives with a diverse set of things we pay attention to on a daily basis. Most often, we are in no way intending to change or modify a behavior that you may think warrants changing.
  2. Becoming Aware - But then someone, usually a person we trust or respect, begins to expose us to new ideas or things we may need to make our lives better. We start becoming aware that we might want to consider modifying or changing a personal behavior. This can be a 6-month process of weighing pros and cons, and being presented with some early information that might help us overcome our ambivalence.
  3. Declaring Intentions - Then there is a pivot point when we decide the pros outweigh the cons and we declare an intention to make a change, usually to a close friend, colleague or family member.
  4. Taking Action - We draw upon available resources or activities to help us fulfill our intentions. If we are not fully committed or the resources do not allow for ease of adoption, we can regress quickly back to our old ways of doing things.
  5. Imprinting Habits - Finally, there is the work we do to maintain the change in behavior. Underneath it all, we are each a mass collection of personal habits. It is how we get through the day, on both a conscious and subconscious level.

It is a well-established habit loop, for example, that enables you to safely back out of your driveway each morning. In car…turn key…buckle…check mirror…look back…put car in reverse…look left, look right…check kids…turn down radio…back out. You don’t even think about it. It can take 3 months to imprint a habit, and up to 6 months to make those habits a routine capable of protecting against any form of regression.

So, that’s the foundation…how we, as individuals, change a behavior.

Now, here is the interesting part.

There are very specific steps you can take to stimulate and accelerate this change process - both inside and outside your organization.

It is how we go about designing the programs and activities that can start, support and sustain intended changes in behavior.

It starts just as we do as individuals. Leaders and organizations must declare their intentions…in clear, concise and understandable terms. It is the narrative you tell others about why a change is so important, and begins to paint a picture of a more compelling future.

Then you help people take action by giving them easy, accessible ways to emulate and copy what good looks like – the reality is that somewhere in the organization, or in the community, someone is doing what you intend to be done. You find that, point to it and say: “Let’s do this more often, in more places, with greater consistency.”

Finally, you learn to connect everything through kinship. Perhaps our greatest learning has been that change flows along social, not organizational, lines. You must find ways to promote new programs, activities, and habits within a social context.

All of this leads to the ignition of small beginnings – the recognition that large-scale change always starts with small, incremental everyday behaviors that people change to improve their lives.

When you approach change in this manner, any organization or business can deliberately set out to influence those behaviors needed to make their new solutions viable.

But, here is the secret. 

The true art is taking the time to understand whose behaviors you really need to influence. When you get that right, that is when you have solutions that have the potential to be not just viable (that is, they work), but also have the potential to be economically viable.

Chris @ sr4