Photos by Annie Spratt and NASA on Unsplash

Reinforced behavior — the dark matter of organizational success

The ability to positively influence peoples’ behavior is a long and more powerful lever than frameworks, values and strategies combined. It opens the door to true adaptability of organizations and can be used in best intentions to create value for users, colleagues and organization’s owners. It’s the base for every organizational success. Yet it’s overlooked and just not understood. It’s like dark matter in a universe full of light. Learn to see, understand and use organizational dark matter for the sake of your organization.

I’m a strong believer that most successful companies are successful just by chance. Most organization’s leaders have no clue why they are successful and how they are going to be successful in the future.* They have no clue because they don’t know what to search for. In this post I am going to look at the single most powerful source of organizational success and how to start using it. After I have shown you the dark matter you won’t be able to not see it from this day on. You might be surprised how obvious it was in the first place.

Dark matter and baryonic matter in organizations

As consultant and agile coach I have always been on the journey to understand what makes organizations successful in their specific situation.** I have been looking for something that was reliable and transferable. I wanted to assure success to my clients.

On this journey I recognized various management frameworks, processes, meeting structures, types of leaders, organizational structures, goal structures, facilities, used artifacts, applied roles, technology and so on. When I have asked top-executives of companies what they think might be the reason for their success I received answers like which goals they had defined, which strategies they had pursued or wich performance indicators they had measured. They have told me whom they had hired, which colleagues had to leave and what kind of meetings they had hold. But I remained skeptical. I couldn’t believe that this has been the true reasons for their success. If that would have been the case it would have been easy to transfer those named elements into different organizations achieving the same positive results. I haven’t been able to achieve that despite all efforts and others are struggling, too.

I would like to refer to everything mentioned above as baryonic matter — please read on, it’s getting exiting. Baryonic matter is a term used in cosmology to, simply put, name objects in the universe that can be observed (more or less easily). Baryons (protons and neutrons) make up ordinary stars and planets. We can observe those stars and planets and we can describe their observed behavior. However, we cannot explain the observed behavior by just using baryonic matter. Astronomic models which only take visible baryonic matter into consideration couldn’t emulate observed behavior of stars and planets. Something essential was missing in those models. But what?

Baryonic matter as far as the eye can see — Photo by Joshua Earle on Unsplash

I am sure that we currently witness the same phenomenon in organizations. We are desperately looking for models that make success predictable and repeatable. However, we cannot reproduce success by reproducing the visible artifacts, structures and so on. Again something invisible seems to be missing to complete the models.

In astro-physics the concept of dark matter has been postulated to explain observable phenomena in the universe. Astro-physicists added the invisible dark matter to their models in order to explain why stars and planets behave the way they do. Although there are doubts left to the concept of dark matter*** I like the analogy. Dark matter is invisible, yet exceptional powerful and omnipresent. It is assumed that most of the matter in the universe is dark matter. I assume that the same is true for the model of organizational success. There must be dark matter in the organizations that determines the success of an organization more than the visible baryonic matter.

So what is it that makes organizations successful? What is it that we need to understand in order to explain what we see in successful organizations? What do we have to consider that lies beyond the easily accessible?

Dark matter in organizations?

I strongly believe that positively influencing the behavior of people is organizations dark matter. We take it for granted but have no clue how we do it effectively, repeatedly and reliably.

“Good morning captain obvious” you say? Well, ok. It might be obvious, but how come that it’s almost never discussed in detail when people talk about successful organizations? I have almost never experienced that somebody could explicitly tell what he does to reinforce certain behavior.

Positively influencing the behavior of people is organizations' dark matter. We take it for granted but have now clue how we do it effectively, repeatedly and reliably.

All the baryonic matter in organizations — the artifacts, meetings, measurements and so on — are, as Aubrey C. Daniels puts it in “Bringing Out the Best in People”, just an antecedent (A) for behavior (B). It‘s the stage on which behavior takes place, but it is not how the magic happens. Daniels developed the ABC-model in order to describe how we can (positively) influence people’s behavior. The true power lies in C, the consequences. Consequences are the core element of the dark matter in organizations, powerful and yet invisible to the observer, if he’s not aware what to look for. The consequences let the magic happen. Based on an antecedent you can observe a specific behavior and it’s the consequences (ABC) that make the difference.

For instance, it’s plain wrong to assume that organizations using an agile management framework with explicit values, principles, roles, meetings and artifacts are successful. The secret source of the success is what consequences follow on a specific behavior based on the antecedence given by the management framework. If you can figure out how behavior is reinforced by consequences you have a true chance to transfer and repeat success. But not only do you have to recognize what consequences reinforce behavior, you also have to mimic the consequences along with behavior. That is hard.

Organizational dark matter — somewhere out there. Photo by NASA on Unsplash

Nothing as powerful and yet overlooked

I am sure that nothing is as powerful as contingent consequences to reinforce behavior in order to design and constantly adapt an organization to its environment.

Especially in agile management frameworks we talk a great deal about values. I myself insisted some time ago that agile values shall be the foundation for an agile turnaround performed in 7 steps. But what does that actually mean? I’ve seen so many value posters sticking to corporate walls with absolutely no positive impact. More often then not those posters caused cynicism and resistance since the illustrated values have been inconsistent with what the employees have experienced as consequences on their own or a colleagues behavior. If you want values to be vibrant in your organization you have to make clear how it would look like if you see those values as part of the daily behavior and then reinforce this behavior accordingly. Everything else is just marketing.

Corporate culture and corporate strategy receive comparable attention. Yet it’s the same discussion. Culture basically is experienced behavior that perpetuates in narratives and reproduction. If you deal with culture you are dealing with antecedences (e.g. artifacts, rituals, roles), behaviors and the reinforcement by explicit or implicit consequences. This is something that better should be done consciously and in line with the needs of the organization’s environment. Corporate strategy is particularly interesting in that sense, since it often does not prescribe how you align your colleagues (or employees, if you will) along with the needs of the strategy. The well intended strategy fails with the inability of organization’s leaders at all levels to positively influence the behavior of people accordingly.

The well intended strategy fails with the inability of organization’s leaders at all levels to positively influence the behavior of people.

How to positively influence people and reinforce behavior

Not only since “How to Win Friends and Influence People” by Dale Carnegie published in 1936 we know quite something about how to positively influence people. However, this knowledge somehow never became part of our management and leadership practices. If someone does positively influence colleagues repeatedly then often because of his or her personality and not due to reflected practice. Nevertheless, I’m certain that positively influencing people is a skill that can be learned as any other leadership skill. It just needs awareness and practice.

But before we dive deeper into the elements of influencing peoples’ behavior let me be clear: This is not about manipulating people! It is not about imposing your will on other people! To positively influence someone the relationship between you and the person you want to influence has to be intact. Daniels and Carnegie emphasize that you have to be genuinely interested in the people you want to influence.

“Liking someone is the other side of having them like You.” Dale Carnegie

Although Daniels developed a five-step-model for reinforced behavior, I don’t want to present it in detail. I want to focus on the interplay of behavior and consequences. (The five steps are 1. Pinpoint, 2. Measure, 3. Feedback, 4. Reinforce, 5. Evaluate. You find summaries of those five steps in the references below.)

Before you purposively influence someone else you have to be specific about the desired behavior that you want to see on the stage of specific antecedents. This is a major step in getting closer towards your organizational goals, your corporate values and your strategy initiatives. This step may sound easier than it actually is.

When talking about agile values in training courses I like to ask the participants: “How would you recognize that this value is part of the organizational DNA? What behavior would likely to be seen then?” The participants usually have a hard time naming observable behavior that would indicate for instance the presence of ‘openness’ — one of the five Scrum values. The same is true for executives trying to pinpoint the behavior they would like to see. However, you cannot avoid this first step. You are not supposed to randomly apply consequences. Those ‘pinpoints’ have to be tangible and observable behaviors. They lie outside of one person. Beliefs, motivation, personality or attitude can never be pinpoints.

Example — Antecedent: A daily standup meeting with your colleagues in front of your task board. Desired behavior: Colleagues name obstacles that slow them down without hesitation as soon as they talk about their work and without an intervention of a dedicated moderator.

As soon as you have defined the desired observable behavior you name the consequences that follow on that behavior. Be as specific about the consequences as well.

Example — Consequence: Immediately after the colleague has finished naming the obstacle I am going to say: “Thank you for the clarity! This is very important to me, since I might encounter the same obstacle soon. May I support you in removing this obstacle?”

Yes, again, Captain Obvious entering the stage. However if you cannot name the desired behavior and the consequences you will never be consistent with your own behavior thus you risk your chance to positively influence behavior. You want the consequences to be instructional, easy to follow and easy to repeat. It must be easily possible to ask a colleague to mimic your consequences in order to change behavior consistent across an organization.

Reinforcement and factors to influence behavior

The example above was simple and straight forward. It was an example of positive reinforcement, which is one of four types of consequences. Daniels distinguishes between positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, punishment and penalty. Let’s just briefly distinguish them. 
[Definitions from a summary of “Bringing Out the Best in People”]

  • Positive reinforcement means that the person who shows the behavior that we want to see is rewarded with something that he likes to receive.
  • Negative reinforcement means the person shows the wanted behavior because he wants to avoid a certain consequence.
  • Punishment means, that unwanted behavior is unlearned by giving the person something he does not want to receive.
  • A Penalty is to unlearn certain behavior by taking something from someone that he would rather keep.

I want to focus on positive reinforcement since it is “by far the most effective” form of consequences. And it is the only form of consequences that can positively influence peoples’ behavior on the long run.

More than those four types of consequences there are three factors that influence behavior based on Daniels theory.

It matters whether the consequence is positive or negative, whether the consequence is certain or uncertain, and whether you will experience the consequence directly or with delay.

Experience shows that the most effective way to positively influence behavior is to repeatedly use positive, certain and direct consequences. Which means we should positively reinforce desired behavior as soon as we see it.

Most of the time honest recognition and appreciation for a desired behavior is the easiest and best form of positive reinforcement. A pat on the shoulder, a thumb´s up, a “thank you” or “well done” whenever you notice somebody showing the right behavior, these are the most powerful consequences one can get, without delay and without negative associations.*

Effective reinforcement = contingent + immediate + frequent *

Positive reinforcement is personal

To be rewarding positive reinforcement not only has to be delivered immediately and frequently, it also has to be directly related to observed behavior and it must be valued by the person receiving it.

This again leads to the fact that the relationship between the two people — the one trying to reinforce behavior and the one receiving the consequences — has to be intact and stable. If mistrust or cynicism masks the conversation between those people, no positive reinforcement is about to happen.

Moreover, it becomes clear that the positive consequences have to be valued by the receiver. It might backfire if you praise a certain behavior of your colleague immediately and loudly to the whole department if your colleague is embarrassed by standing on the big stage. It‘s necessary figure out with genuine interest, which kind of positive reinforcement someone likes and which not.

To change behavior change yourself

It gets clear that actively and positively influencing people’s behavior has a lot to do with yourself. You have to consciously define what behavior you want to see in your organization. Which also means — in order to be consistent — it defines the behavior you want to observably embody . This is tricky. You cannot expect certain behavior from people around you without acting accordingly. Otherwise it will create cynicism and reluctance.

So, if you want to influence behavior you have to be crystal clear about your own behavior on the stage of certain antecedence. You want people to speak up honestly? You have to do it yourself. You want people to be courageous and quick to admit mistakes? You need to honestly allow mistakes. You have to praise them, whenever they occur. Don’t criticize colleagues in front of everybody because of an admitted mistake.

It‘s especially tricky since most of us are almost always unaware of our own behavior. This shows the importance of critical self-observation and collegial reflection on specific observed behavior. This is especially true if you are a top-manager who wants to change behavior at a larger scale.

It might need a different perspective to see organizational dark matter Photo by NASA on Unsplash

Use organizational dark matter at scale

Organizational dark matter may also be used at scale. First define the system or process in which specific behavior is desired. Secondly name the desired behavior. Recognize that the system or the process contains the antecedents for the behavior. Thirdly you plan possible, specific and positive consequences which may be applied in future, if appropriate.

If colleagues in your organization show a behavior that is no longer appropriate accompanying you might have to support unlearning that specific behavior. The most practical approach is to stop positively reinforce the yet undesired behavior. This can be done by ignoring the inappropriate behavior.

Always be clear about your motives! The colleagues that are influenced by you have always behaved well intended and appropriate according to the implicit or explicit requirements of the system, namely your organization, in which they have been acting. By changing the reinforcing structures you change the system in which your colleagues show behavior. You never change the people themselves!

To make the new behavior stick you have to perpetually reinforce the desired behavior. Not once, not twice. It takes hundreds of reinforcers to make behavior stick. Don’t be surprised if your colleagues fall back in their old habits. Stick to the plan and keep reinforcing the desired behavior as well as ignoring the undesired behavior. Don’t worry if your colleagues burst out emotionally. This is fine. If you stop reinforcing behavior your colleagues will be irritated and demand the recognition they received once. Speak to them. Be honest. Listen to their feelings and explain your motives. And never stop reinforcing the new, desired behavior.

According to Daniels you can carry out a cultural change by following this recipe. However, it is necessary to align all the managers of an organization according to the desired behavior and according to the set of consequences. If they all behave unified and consistent in their own behavior they can change behavior of their colleagues (or employees, if you will) at scale.

Example — Imagine a Scrum team that owns a product for internal invoice processing in a large corporation. The product is called ‘speed-invoice’. The Scrum team consists of five full-stack developers, a product owner and one scrum master that accompanies two teams. The Scrum team does well. However, the product does not meet the internal clients needs, despite all efforts.

Currently, the Scrum team receives its user stories from Daniel, the invoice processing department lead. He sends his user stories to Joshua, the product owner who enqueues the user stories into the team’s backlog from which the developer pull according to their sprint rhythm.

In order to deliver what the client really needs the scrum master and the rest of the team decide that they have to get closer to the users of their product. This shall lead to some behavioral changes wich are mapped out be the Scrum team in a retrospective at the end of one sprint.

They list the following desired behaviors and possible consequences:

  • Go and see for yourself — in rotation they want to be part of the invoicing team. They want to use ‘speed-invoice’ in action, at least two days a month per person for three months.
    Whoever works together with the users is allowed to define the user story based on what he has seen. This appreciates the insights the team members earn by collaborating with the colleagues from the invoicing department. 
    Moreover, they decide that they want to respond “great insights” or “well done” or “wow, that is valuable” to whomever brings first hand user insights to the team.
  • They decide to write user stories in a way that they always start with the ‘why’ in mind. Why does a user want a specific feature? They pinpoint to challenge each others user stories by asking “What is the true need behind this feature request?” and they define to continually re-write user stories as the knowledge about the users needs evolves. 
    As a consequence they want to give each other different kinds of appreciation. They come up with the idea of ‘insightful user story balls’. These balls shall playfully be thrown at someone who wrote a very insightful user story. At the end of each week the team wants to count the number of balls each team member collected. The one with the highest amount of balls receives a free meal in the cafeteria treated by the rest of the team. 
    In addition to that they decide to thank each other immediately for the feedback and inquiries regarding the true need behind a user story.
    They plan to thank Daniel for letting them write the user stories in his stead whenever they talk to him about requirements.
  • They decide to hold up a review meeting with volunteers of the invoicing department and Daniel, of course to collect feedback or wishes at the end of each sprint and to have an open discussion about wants and needs. 
    The review meeting shall be more a party then a meeting. They want to value the discussion and they want to have fun while receiving user feedback. That’s why they plan to bring some cake and sandwiches. At the end of each review meeting they want to applaud each other to acknowledge what they have accomplished.
  • All of the team members agree on the behaviors and the planned consequences. They believe that the consequences are rewarding for everybody involved. They write the agreement on a flip chart and sign it with their names.

As soon as the new sprint starts, they arrange the participation in the invoicing department. Although Daniel is skeptical he agrees since he is short on people due to one vacation and one sick leave and he hopes that the developer will be a quick learner on the most easy tasks. One week later Mike sits on an invoicing terminal using his own software. Not everybody in the Scrum team was eager to be the first to start. The rest of the team acknowledged Mike’s courage and they tell him so. After three days Mike is back at the team space. He is full of energy and ideas. He describes what he has seen and experienced. The other colleagues listen carefully and repeatedly say “great insights” and “wow, that is valuable”. Mike is flattered and keeps talking. Together they write the first user stories. They want to encourage each other and start throwing the ‘insightful user story balls’ at each other. They laugh and have fun.

In their first review meeting the participants from the invoicing department are still a bit shy but they are impressed by the relaxed setting. They have fun looking an the new features. Daniel is stunned and full of praise as he recognizes what “modern technology” is capable of. He acknowledges that he could not imagine those features. The team is flattered and thankful. They let Daniel know how good it feels for them to write the user stories by themselves. Daniel admits that he never really liked writing user stories but has always been afraid to ask the team to write their stories on their own since they have always been busy developing new features.

The story continues that way. Some of the members forget now and then to start with the ‘why’ at each user story but the rest of the team is eager to hold everybody accountable and motivated.

The ‘speed-invoice’ team — do you notice the dark matter? Photo by Štefan Štefančík on Unsplash

After three months almost everybody from the scrum team has worked in the invoicing department. The roadmap of the invoicing software changed significantly. The team improved the workflow and the user experience of ‘speed-invoice’ since they have noticed on their own how painful it was to perform certain actions with their own product. They include more and more shortcuts and background automation and receive a lot of praise from their users in the invoicing department.

After six months they have almost forgotten the three months experiment. Alex, a developer from the purchasing platform asks Joshua: “Since when do you guys work that way?” But Joshua can hardly remember. It feels to him as if they have worked that way all along. The ball game is not part of the teams routine anymore. It got removed in one retrospective some time ago. However, the spirit of first hand experiences, always asking ‘why’, looking for the users needs and celebrating together ist still vividly alive.

* This is true for unsuccessful companies as well but I don’t want to focus on them here.
** I’m not going to discuss the terminology ‘success’ in this post. I assume that success is everything that brings an organizations closer towards its goal. This is specific to every organization, of course. However there are patterns that help to assure success despite the difference of the system and the goal. 
*** Most of the observable phenomena in the universe currently can only be described if we consider the existence of dark matter (or we consider that our current understanding of the laws of gravity are wrong).

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