Monday, March 28, 2011

Understand What Drives Behavioral Change

Executive Summary:
If you want or need to drive a change in behavior for your team, understand that people change when it is better for them to change than to remain the same.  Change occurs because we decide to change.  We either accept change or we want it.  The decision to change is fundamentally an emotional decision, not a logical one.  To facilitate behavioral change, address the change on an emotional level.

The Rest of the Story:
Whether by influence of technology, competition, economic pressure, or growth, almost every business in the U.S. is experiencing change today.  Change in business is inevitable and necessary.  Many times, in order to make the business adaptations necessary we must drive changes in the behavior of our personnel.  New people, new contracts, new technology, new processes, new organizational structures, and more all drive changes in the way we behave.  When we need to direct changes in the behavior (the way people do things) of our teams, we must understand what behavioral change is and how to motivate it.

The first thing to understand is that our behavior changes when it is better for us to change than to remain the same.  Change, no matter its form, comes with some form of discomfort or sacrifice.  We won’t endure that without a benefit to be had.  It’s a fundamental energy equation.  It takes energy (effort or resources) to change, and we won’t commit to it unless we need to.

The second thing we must understand is that a change in behavior is a decision.  Behavioral change occurs only because we commit to the change.  Saying we will, even going along for a few days, does not equate to true behavioral change.  We either accept change, or we desire change, or we resist change, but either way, it’s fundamentally a decision to follow through or to stand firm.

The third thing we must understand is that the decision to change is an emotional decision, not a logical one.  Of course, data and facts can be the impetus for the decision, but if we decide to change the way we behave it will be an emotional response.  Let’s face it; if it were a logical decision, every pizza joint in the U.S. would already be out of business – the logical reasons to indulge just don't beat the logical reasons to pass on pizza.

Let’s look at a couple of quick examples and see if the above statements make sense.  First, let’s look at an easy change; the change from old television to high-definition (HD) TV.  If you are like most others in the U.S. with a steady income, you have probably made the switch to HD TV.  I think it’s obvious that we decided to make the change.  Was it a logical decision?  If you consider the extent of basic needs such as food, home repair, transportation maintenance, or the other investments such as college funds for our children, retirement, or life insurance it’s hard to explain logically why HD TV was the logical thing to do with a few thousand dollars.  But, we wanted it!  And when we figured out how to get all of our equipment installed, wired up, the sound system tuned in, and plugged in our first HD movie or sports event to watch, and we experienced it in our own home, the time, effort, and money seemed worth it.

So let’s examine the change to HD TV.  We wanted it because we perceived that life would be better than with old TV.  We made an emotional decision.  We sacrificed time, effort, and money to get it.  Yes, even an easy and desired change meets all three criteria; at least in this example.

So let’s look at a much more difficult behavioral change; a change in lifestyle to include a healthier diet and serious exercise routine.  Have you tried this one?  It’s not easy for me, or for anyone else I have ever talked with about it.  So, the media, your own research, your friends and family, your doctor, or all of the above, have made it clear how important it is to improve your health with diet and exercise.  There’s your logic and data.  But did you decide to commit and follow through, or did you go through the motions and revert?  If you reverted it’s probably because the discomfort and sacrifice outweighed your commitment.  If you followed through then it probably wasn’t because you thought it might be a good idea.  Chances are you were either so unhappy with your current health or appearance, or you desired enough to be athletic or an example to your family, or you feared the consequences enough that the discomfort and sacrifice were worth it.

If you have ever succeeded in changing your diet and exercise lifestyle, then certainly it was because you perceived that life would be better if you did.  Certainly it was a decision, not an accident.  There was discomfort and sacrifice, but you stuck with it.  Did you stick with it because it made sense, or because of either a burning desire, or fear?  That’s all three criteria.

If you want to lead your teams through behavioral change at work, such as using a new system, process, technology, or learning to work with a new team, you must address the three criteria discussed above.  Naturally, change happens easiest if we desire it, instead of accept it, but both are better than resistance. 

To bust through resistance or create desire, communicate how and why it will be better to change.  If it’s necessary for the survival of the business, then the motivation factor should be pretty clear – change or die.  If the new process will save the business a few dollars, you will need to dig down and find that “what’s in it for me” motivator.  Most people won’t get excited enough to get through the discomfort and sacrifice because it saves the business a few bucks.  If you can demonstrate how their lives will be better because of the change, such is best.  It works on people’s emotions if they feel or experience it much more so than if you just show them the numbers (imagine how much easier it would be to change your diet and exercise if you could feel the end results before you started).  It takes time and effort to set-up and run a demonstration or pilot, but the impact is often well worth the investment.  I’m not a big fan of monetary incentives to drive change, but they can be effective.

Create desire for the change by including your team’s natural leaders in the planning and development of the change and the solution to which you are changing. (See my post dated March 21, 2011 “Managers Vs. Leaders” for insights on how to identify natural leaders).  If they have a hand in the development of how life will be better, then they will be believers without any further convincing.  They also have a powerful pulling influence on their peers.

Begin the change by focusing on the natural leaders in your team.  As stated already, if these team members commit and follow through, they will have a powerful pulling influence on their peers.  Keep the commitment, by remaining committed yourself.  Some folks will resist intentionally, some just because they don’t feel the compulsion in spite of your efforts.  Don’t let that natural resistance prevail.  Make it clear that if they do not desire the change, they must make a choice to accept it or resist it.  It may be necessary to communicate that they resist at their own peril, but I strongly recommend letting peer pressure work on them for a while first.  Many times, when resisters see that everyone else has made the change, they will too because it suddenly becomes better to rejoin the crowd than to be an alien.

Remember that some resistance is natural.  Not everyone will be affected the same way by your demonstrations and reasoning.  Once, while helping to drive a business to a global engineering change process and engineering database, I had to explain to one technical document control person how her job was going to change as a result of the new system.  No matter what I did, she just couldn’t see how the new future was going to be getter for her.  Ultimately, she took a job with another company.  It was easier for her to accept the change to a new company, than to accept the change to the new system.  It happens.

Here is an example of successfully creating pull for change.  I proposed a refresh of the product development process for a sector of the corporation for which I worked.  The process had been through a number of changes over the last few years and wasn’t working they way we needed.   The details of my proposed restructuring need not be explained here, but I convinced our leadership that we would get better standardization across our nine different design centers around the globe and better cooperation and productivity as a result.  I also pointed out how several of our biggest problems in product development would be addressed.  I appealed to their desires (emotion) for better, faster product development and got approval to proceed.

The first thing I did, was to get the natural leaders from each design center and each engineering discipline assembled in one room.  I had already captured their biggest problems and concerns with the current state and had organized them in a neat visual that summed up the pain of the day and we quickly went over it – carefully avoiding a degenerating gripe session.  When they asked me how I was going to solve such a wide range of problems, I pulled up my proposal and said, “I suggest we re-build the process so that we focus on X instead of what we are doing.”  It was only a sketch, but enough to communicate how the whole process would operate differently and how most or all of their biggest concerns would be addressed.  Fortunately, my idea was well received.  Of course, because most of the assembled were engineers, the next immediate question was, “how are you going to build that?”  To which, I responded, “not me, you, right now.”  I explained that the assembled knew more about how to do product development in the sector than anyone else, that they were the ones who had to live with the solution, and that I had paved the way for us to do so.  So, we spent the rest of the week, working out the key elements.

I spent months after that explaining the plan to leaders in every function that participated in product development, getting their input and fleshing out the details.  I also repeatedly went back to management and showed them how the details we put in place addressed the problems they perceived in product development and preparing them for the behavioral changes they would need to make to enable the new methodology.

The complete story is an elaborate one, but here is my point.  By the time the management team was convinced that we had worked out all the details and had a solid deployment plan, the engineers, sourcing teams, manufacturing teams, marketing teams, quality teams, etc. were calling me frequently to ask, “when are you launching the new methodology, and can my project be the first?”  Seriously, I had three or five calls a day from various people.  We had successfully created, not just reluctant acceptance, but urgent desire for the new process.  To top it off, it was a process that affected nearly every function in the sector.  It was by far the most exciting change that I had ever orchestrated before then. 

If you address all three elements above - life will be better if we change, address it as an emotional decision, and make the benefit feel worth the discomfort and sacrifice – then people will decide to change.  If you do it well enough, they will shift past acceptance to desire, which is ultimately the best condition in which to drive behavioral change.  Some resistance is natural.  For the resistors, try to understand which of the three elements they missed and see if you can’t fill the gap for them.  If not, try letting peer pressure finish the process.  If necessary, give them the ultimatum to join or suffer unpleasant consequences.  Whatever you do, be persistent and lead the behavior yourself.  You will succeed.

Stay wise friends.

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