Toolbox for Organizational Behavior Change

Introducing the toolbox of the behavioral manager through 10 provocative questions

This post is an adapted conversation between Samuel Salzer and Henrik Dresbøll of WElearn from the series Behavior Worth Spreading. It explores the toolbox of the behavioral manager as Samuel answers ten questions from Henrik related to organizational behavior change.

1) Why do organizations only succeed with 50% of their change projects?

My biased answer is a lack of focus on behavior, i.e., what behavior(s) need to change for the targeted outcomes to be reached. If target behaviors are identified (kudos!), there is often a general lack of understanding of what levers to use to change that behavior.

“It is very tempting to think we already know the answer”

This usually stems from not really understanding the problem and jumping too quickly into a solution-oriented mindset before having done any substantive user research or behavioral mapping. It is very tempting to think we already know the answer, but we often need to spend more time on the problem than most organizations currently do.

This leads to an over-reliance on the levers most often historically used, like regulation changes, training, spreading information, and adding incentives, in favor of more subtle but effective changes in the user, client, or employee experience.

We are too focused on figuring out what we need to get people to do and tell them to do it, instead of understanding why they are not doing it in the first place. Once we understand the problem, it’s easier to design the solution.

2) What are the top five frictions to change in modern everyday organizations?

Like with the first question, this is very context-dependent and differs greatly depending on organizational structure, industry, and workforce.

  1. Firstly, it should be said that there is inherent friction to most behavioral changes due to habituation and status quo bias. Anything new generally requires more cognitive and physical effort, making it challenging to implement.
  2. Since the topic here is organizational change, we can’t ignore the fact that leadership and management have a massive role. For meaningful behavioral change to happen, it generally needs to start from the top.
  3. To that point, a significant barrier or friction to change is the lack of understanding of basic motivational theory, for example, Self-Determination Theory, combined again with not doing proper user/employee-centered research. We know that most people will be much more inclined to change if it leads to them feeling a sense of autonomy in their role, increased social status or connection, and competence in the work they do. While these things seem straightforward, it is much easier said than done, and most leaders fail to develop a nuanced understanding of this.
  4. One of the most significant missed opportunities for most organizations to accomplishing this is strong feedback loops. Managers not doing yearly or quarterly, but weekly reviews and exchange of feedback with employees. It’s going to become a lot easier to understand what interferes with change when you constantly listen, learn, test, and iterate. It’s not easy to be a manager, and that is why you see solutions like Humu and Signol that aims to support this crucial form of feedback loops.
  5. Perhaps the most significant friction point of all is the lack of converting long-term visions and objectives to clearly defined experiments aimed to reach them. We should always use a scientific lens and expect anything worthwhile to take time. Want more productive employees? Gather insights on their most significant productivity barriers and then run an experiment of removing some of them. Did it work? Why or why not? What can we tweak to improve further? And so on. Doing this takes more effort in the short-term, but we always need to tackle friction through a systematic approach if we hope to succeed in the long run.

3) What is the job of a behavioral manger?

A behavioral manager’s role is facilitating many of the processes I outlined in answering the first questions. It starts with managing the conversion of KPIs or organizational objectives to clearly defined targeted behaviors and then establishing a clear understanding of the problem using a combination of qual and quant insights from user research, desk research, and behavioral mapping. Once the problem is understood, the BM facilitates designing an intervention tailored to the specific target behavior and context.

Lastly, a BM needs to manage running experiments to test interventions and iterate until the most effective solution is in place. Different roles already perform many of these tasks, but rarely with an underlying foundational understanding of behavioral science.

Any behavioral manager needs expect to facilitate a lot of training and advocacy work.

I’d be lying if I didn’t mention that a big part of the behavioral manager’s role is to educate the organization in understanding what the heck behavioral design is in practice. Behavioral design is something new for many (with this interview series being a case in point), and any behavioral manager needs to be humble to that and expect to facilitate a lot of training and advocacy work.

4) What is the most important lesson from behavioral science which the BMs should practice every day?

Behavior is dependent on context. What works in one context might not work in the next one, as Kurt Lewin’s classic equation suggests: behavior = person + situation. So before we start building an intervention, we must have a deep understanding of the specific context and people the intervention will target. Like the fish having to remind themselves they’re swimming in water, the BM needs to everyday think “context, context, context.”

5) What characterizes a tool in a behavioral toolbox?

A tool is just one lever to influence behavior. This comes back to the need to understand the context and person. Since there is such a great variety and complexity, it means that an almost endless list of different tools can be used at different times.

One of the biggest misconceptions about behavioral design is that it’s just a bag full of tricks and hacks.

One of the biggest misconceptions about behavioral design, however, is that it’s just a bag full of tricks and hacks. People often think just knowing the name of the tool or concepts is all they need. I think a good metaphor here is for building a house. Let’s say you need to build a house; however, you know nothing about carpentry. So you go to your local builder and ask to look in his toolbox and tell you the name of each tool he uses to build houses. He agrees and does that, and afterward, you say, “Perfect, now I know how to build a house!” Sadly, it’s not that easy.

Knowing the name of something is a start, but barely much more than that. It’s the exact same way when it comes to behavioral design — it’s not only the tools that are important but how to use them, when to use them and the process behind making sure that the intervention is done correctly.

Again, we need to also know the problem we are trying to solve lest we become someone using the proverbial hammer on screws.

6) What are the new tools in the toolbox that the behavioral manager may use that traditional change management does not possess?

So while in some ways far from new, there are a couple of different waves in applied behavioral science. You have the nudging wave with tools such as defaults, social proof, and timely visual cues becoming more commonly used. You have the SDT wave with a focus on creating ownership, connection, and building competence. You also increased use of commitment devices, new ideas around lotteries for improved incentives, utilizing fresh starts, creating temptation bundles, insights and techniques from Gamification, and the list goes on.

The problem is not having too few tools, but not knowing the theory, not having a scientific process, or not understanding the problem.

However, none of these are universal, and several can easily backfire if used in the wrong way or the wrong context. These represent tools from a myriad of sub-disciplines within behavioral science, but I’m agnostic to which field these tools come from. I’m honestly just interested in whether they work, i.e., can solve the problem I’m tackling and change behavior without negative side effects. While the tools get the headlines, I’m honestly less interested in these.

The problem is not having too few tools, but not knowing the theory, not having a scientific process, or not understanding the problem. Beyond that, perhaps the biggest missed opportunity is becoming better at using the tools already at most change-makers disposal. It’s incredible that with seemingly most behavior change projects, the most effective category of tools to use is to make doing the behavior easier — to find ways to remove friction, not to add fuel.

7) What does a day in a behavioral manager’s day look like, on an hour to hour basis?

In many ways, no two days are alike — you always have to stay on your feet and expect the unexpected. However, the four main tasks revolve around;

  1. Communicating with stakeholders,
  2. Managing desk and user research,
  3. Designing and implementing interventions, and
  4. Managing experiments and analyzing data.

While less exciting, the first point of listening to different stakeholders and making sure the solution solves the core problems and objectives might be the most important task. If not done effectively, expect numerous delays and Zoom meeting galore.

8) What is at stake when we talk about impact in behavioral change management?

The basic premise to me is that if we want to change the world, we need to change behavior. This means that what we spend our time on and the behaviors we intend to change is very important.

Are we just hiding behind vanity metrics that makes us feel good like “increased awareness”.

A good place to start is UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals. Are we moving the needle on any of them? How effectively? Could we solve more impactful problems? And perhaps most importantly, are we actually changing behavior or are we just hiding behind vanity metrics that makes us feel good like “increased awareness”.

9) What is the best way to scale behavioral change — and create lasting impact in terms of new habits?

This comes back to the feedback loops that I mentioned earlier. The best way to scale anything is to start small and then build an effective process that reinforces itself.

The same is true for behavior change. The best way to look at it is like an experiment. Start small, test, learn, iterate, and adapt — push ahead.

Habit formation is a poorly understood concept.

A brief word of caution: building habits is hard and might not be what you need. Being an expert on helping organizations with habits, I can also say that habit formation is a poorly understood concept. It is more of a buzzword today than something that most organizations understand and grasp. They know they should cultivate it, but often do more harm than good due to this lack of understanding. It is even true that habits are often not even the answer to their problems.

We don’t want people in our organizations to become mindless drones.

Habits are per definition automatic actions done without conscious thought, and while that might fit some desired behaviors, we don’t want people to become mindless drones. You might be more in need of just engaging the right one-time behaviors or understanding if people have their basic psychological needs fulfilled.

10) Why should a corporate organization hire a behavioral manager for their change projects?

I’ll use a recent quote from Jack Dorsey, CEO of Twitter here to illustrate my point. Mr. Dorsey said he now believes that he made a critical mistake: not hiring experts to help him understand the potentially far-reaching importance of apparently small design choices:

“The disciplines that we were lacking in the company in the early days, that I wish we would have understood and hired for,” he said, were “a game theorist to just really understand the ramifications of tiny decisions that we make, such as what happens with retweet versus retweet with comment and what happens when you put a count next to a like button?”

This illustrates two points:

1. That most people still don’t know how to navigate the behavioral landscape very well. Mr. Dorsey would receive little help with the above from a game theorist, as they mostly do theoretical math or utility maximization in a market setting, rather than understanding or predicting social behavior.

What design choices or internal processes are you overlooking that could cost you greatly in the long-run?

2. That is what behavioral designers and scientists do. And that is my main point here — if Mr. Dorsey’s biggest regret is not hiring someone to help him “understand the potentially far-reaching importance of apparently small design choices”, what are you waiting for if you lead a corporate organization? What design choices or internal processes are you overlooking that could cost you greatly in the long-run?

Samuel Salzer is a leading behavioral strategist and habit expert, having worked with organizations across five continents. Among other things, he’s one of the world’s first Chief Behavioral Officer (CBO) in tech, and he specializes in applying insights from behavioral science and behavioral economics to build user-centered and habit-forming products and services.

At the forefront of the emerging field of Behavioral Design, Samuel is a frequent keynote speaker, curates the popular newsletter Habit Weekly, and has co-authored “Nudging in practice — Helping organizations make it easy to do the right thing.” The book offers a comprehensive guide to organizations interested in understanding and systematically utilizing behavioral insights.

Say hi 👋 Website | Twitter |LinkedIn

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