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Why Initiatives Fail

Categories: Behavior change, BMT Courses, Feedback, Leadership, TrainingAuthor:

I gave a presentation on this topic at the BMT Fed Leadership Conference in Manchester in May 2013.  Here is a short excerpt from that talk.

Click to view the 8-min video:  Why Initiatives Fail – John Austin

Most change initiatives fail. 

That’s the simple truth.  In fact, most experts suggest that upwards of 70% of them fail.  You can check my stats here by Googling “Why initiatives fail.”  If you’ve spent any amount of time in just about any job, at just about any level in the organization, you will have seen lots of change efforts come and go.

I suppose this all depends on how you define ‘failure’, but the fact that so many people have written about it suggests there is something going on here. As I was looking through what has been written on the topic – there is so much that I could not read it all – I was struck by the fact that most explanations of how to avoid failure quickly turn aspirational.

“Plan your effort better”

“Realize people are your most valuable asset”

“Communicate the change effectively”

…and so on.

It’s not that these are not reasonable things to consider, but rather that they are not the most important factors. Of all of the articles written about how make change efforts succeed, I have yet to find one that offers a behaviorally sound explanation; an explanation based on behavioral science. The purpose of this blog is to give a quick overview of what the science would suggest is a leading cause of failure among initiatives.

The logic.

Most initiatives are started because results are lacking in some way.  Results are lacking because of the behavior of people – that is, what people are saying and doing. The behavior of people is driven by their local environments – what they see and hear around them from moment to moment.  Therefore, the only way to get the behavior you want out of people is to create an environment in which this will occur.  Most change initiatives are created without ever considering the local environment of the people who will put the initiative into action on a daily basis.  This is a fatal flaw.

Problems with most initiatives.

The local environment is the whole ball game.  That’s what drives the behavior you see.  Here’s a simple example: put your favorite guilty snack on the counter (mine is potato chips) and you’re more likely to eat it.  Throw it away and replace it with fruit and your behavior changes again.

This is the basis of behavioral science and there are countless ways to influence behavior by changing the local environment.  This is the bit of knowledge that successful initiatives manage to get right.

Three problems with most initiatives include:

1)    They are conceived in isolation (without clear knowledge of the local environments in which they will be deployed)

2)    They are constructed from the writer’s perspective, not from the receiver’s perspective.

3)    They do not consider the consequences to the performer for behaving in line with the stated goals of the initiative.

If you want to get yours right, be sure to avoid these predictable mistakes.

Manipulation is Abuse, Not Behavioral Science

Categories: Behavior change, BMT Courses, Leadership, ReinforcementAuthor:

Some time ago, someone in our courses suggested that BMT could be used for “manipulation”.  Our ensuing conversation caused me to think about this issue a bit more, and that’s where this blog post came from.  The bottom line is that if you think BMT is manipulation, then you’re doing it wrong.  According to the dictionary, manipulation is “a type of influence that aims to change the behavior of others through underhanded, deceptive, or abusive tactics.” I’d only add that manipulation is about trying to get someone to do something that’s not in their best interest, and unfortunately this does happen at work sometimes.

The conversation we had reminded me that it’s a healthy practice to challenge what you’re doing at home and at work and to ask if it’s the right thing to do.  We often encounter situations in which individuals want culture change in their business or they want things to change in their families at home.  When the other parties involved (coworkers, spouses, children) don’t also see the need for change, it can be difficult to make headway.

I could see wondering about whether you were using manipulation if you were trying to influence someone at work or at home to do something they don’t want to do.  If you’ve felt this way before, perhaps consider these two suggestions:

1)      Could it be that you are asking for something that you want, but the other person doesn’t?  Perhaps the other person could deliver what is needed for the business (or your family, as the case may be) via another route more acceptable to them. Perhaps the disagreement is over the behavior, and not the result.  If that’s the case, this could be a sign that you’re micromanaging; cut it out and see what happens.

2)      Maybe the resistance you are getting from the other person is an issue of shaping; an instance in which you can see the new future but the others can’t.  In this case, the solution could be to find a smaller step to ask for between here and there.

There are other possibilities of course.  However, as with most of our blogs, I guess the take away point ought to be that this has more to do with you than them.  There are literally millions of possibilities when it comes to what you could say to influence someone else’s behavior.  If one of them doesn’t feel right, surely you could take a few minutes and think about 5 or 10 other more acceptable things you could say.

The science of behavior suggests that we’re constantly influencing the behavior of others, both intentionally and inadvertently.  If you try to use knowledge of behavioral science to manipulate someone and get them to do something that isn’t in their best interest, the result will be punishing to them and it will eventually backfire.

Once you learn behavioral science you are more aware of your influence over others and you are therefore better positioned to create an environment that increases the chances someone will be safe, productive, and happy at work.  We’ve heard it many times; behavioral science improves people’s lives.

Careless or Attentive? It’s your choice.

Categories: Behavior change, Employee Engagement, Leadership, SafetyAuthor:

A worker shows up at my house to fix the cable TV and while he’s working my pre-school aged son takes it on himself to bring the worker a bottle of water from our pantry.  The cable guy thanked him and smiled, it was a nice thing to do.

Being a curious behavioral psychologist, when the worker left our house I asked my son why he brought the guy water.  Pushing him a little bit, I said, “Isn’t he paid to do this work?  Shouldn’t he bring his own water?”  My son said, “He’s doing a lot of work for us and he might get thirsty for some water.”

That exchange got me thinking a bit about the inverse actions that we sometimes see in business.

The argument goes something like this:  An employee is not meeting expectations on the job.  We suggest that perhaps the business hasn’t created the right conditions for success.  A manager stands up and says, “All of this hand holding is getting to be too much for me.  When does it end?  Do you have to reward every person for every little thing they do?  Their paycheck ought to be enough!”

Let’s stop, take a deep breath, and think this one through a little more carefully.  What if you used the same logic for:

  • your children?   …They ought to go to bed on time because I said so…
  • your spouse? …She ought to do the laundry because it’s always been that way…
  • your friends? …They ought to accept me because that’s what friends are for…
  • your boss?  …She ought to want me to work on those valued projects because I’ve been here so long…

What these scenarios do not take into account is your role in creating an environment in which the other person (or persons) would ever want to do what you’re asking them to do.  We’ve all seen people in businesses treat their vendors, employees, customers, and even families, carelessly.  Behavioral science would predict these kinds of patterns in some situations, especially when we become too busy.  However, it seems to defy logic: These are the very people we rely on to deliver our key results at work and in our personal life and yet we sometimes don’t treat them with the care and attention they deserve.  We sometimes rely on people to simply do what they ought to do, without thinking about what it feels like to be them.

In most cases, a little bit of forethought on your part is all that is needed to make others feel good about what you hope they’ll do for you or the business.  This is perhaps why being too busy is a principle cause in the lack of prudence I am describing – when we’re too busy, we often go on ‘autopilot’ and stop thinking about things carefully.

A paycheck, contract, agreement, formal power or job role is usually not enough to bring out the best in people – these are just some threatening ways to keep people in line.  We all know that threats tend to bring out compliance more so than excellence.   Your job as a leader, spouse, parent, etc. is to try to arrange things so that the people who interact with you are happy to be doing so.

Perhaps you can take a few minutes to think about some of your key relationships and consider how well you’ve set yourself and your partners up for success and happiness?

When is the last time you “brought someone a bottle of water”?