Tiny Changes: Powerful Sustainable Results

Ratios can help the adoption of a small, regular behaviour. Ratios also provide a lens to look at behaviour frequency. The ratio of time spent on healthy habits and constructive behaviours. The time spent on a “better you” for example. For people resistant to change, you might look at the ratio of complaining to doing. For managers, it could be a ratio of the time spent on being “on the tools” to administration to team development.
Source: Human Factors Advisory (www.humanfactorsadvisory.com.au)

2. Ratios

3. Behavioural intercepts

4. Small shift of the dial

5. Implementation

6. Postgame

Where do you begin?

Change can be overwhelming. So start small.

If you had to prioritise, what is the one thing that you want to focus on? What is the one thing that would make a subtle yet significant shift in how your teams function?

We can start with specific behaviours. For example, would you like to increase the times your team respond to crises rather than react? What would need to be in place for this response? A plan or standard operating procedures?

But if your team don’t have a plan for a crisis? What percentage of team member time could be allocated to drafting a plan in the next two months? How would you break this plan down? Like in the writing of this article, you might want to draft an outline. This could be a behaviour to focus on in the first week with your team — an outline or significant progress towards it.

Your team may complain; their emotions drive what they say. “But really — we are too busy!”. Yet how much can you do in a small arbitrary amount of time each day — say twenty minutes?

The Understated Power of Ratios

Your team may dedicate twenty minutes each day to working on their operation and not in it. This specific, measurable goal is commendable. Yet over time, do you have the capacity to watch this?

Beyond specific daily goals or routines, there is another option.

Ratios. Ratios can help the adoption of a small, regular behaviour. Ratios also provide a lens to look at behaviour frequency. For example, the ratio of work being done to install helpful long-term systems, efficiencies and supporting documents. This shift helps teams respond rather than react to crises. For people resistant to change, you might look at the ratio of complaining to doing.

For managers, it could be a ratio of the time spent on being “on the tools” to administration to team development.

For example, safety culture in many organisations. If people recognise and talk about safety culture, is this a decent target behaviour? Yes. This is a great starting point. A ratio of one in ten may shift the dial towards regular safety-related conversations. Is ten per cent of a meeting dedicated to safety-related issues difficult? Probably not. Could you set this routine at the beginning or end of each meeting?

Team leaders may have started the habit of asking about safety and adding to meeting agendas. Over time, everyone would come to expect this question and pull up others if the “safety question” was ignored or skipped.

Could we take a similar approach to your chosen target behaviour? Sometimes asking others what their ratio is for a specific behaviour is a powerful coaching question. It is easy to spend time complaining about a behaviour requiring willpower. Being distracted by bright, shiny things is just as hypnotic. Social media, the latest work “crisis”, and an impulse to save the day. Each takes us away from the discipline of benefiting “future you”.

How could you use the idea of ratios to influence constructive change?

Behavioural intercepts

People may not pay attention to logic or rhetoric, as they become used to leaders persuasive arguments and presentation decks. Yet, they may walk past and unwittingly absorb messages in their workplace. People may be distracted or tense in meetings and other forums where you are trying to persuade. Yet people may relax in the office kitchen.

So how can you capture a small percentage of people’s attention span? By using behavioural intercepts.

In advertising, billboards and well-placed posters is an oft-used, impactful advertising technique. Posters greet people on bus shelters, train stations and in other public areas. Even the back of public toilet doors or above urinals are fair game for advertising messages. For leading change, why not apply the same idea?

A quickly-drafted poster conveying your main message(s) doesn’t take long to prepare. Aim for quick production and avoid perfection. If you had to assign a number to this activity — aim for a “seven out of ten”.

Behavioural intercepts like well-placed posters in kitchen areas and other office walkways can make a subtle difference. In the time of COVID and lockdowns, do behavioural intercepts apply to remote workers? Yes. Screensavers and login screens for frequently-used software applications are great spaces for behavioural intercepts. Applications system administrators can often place brief messages on software login screens.

A small shift of the dial

What is the small, subtle shift of the dial you are looking to make?

When you think of making a change, do you consider implementation alone? The “Just Do It” approach to change? This is possible, but how likely will your attempts to change the status quo succeed? Small, subtle shifts need your planning.

So think beyond implementation. Consider your change as a mini-project. Your “mini-project thinking” affords you the breathing space to think and plan, calibrating a better aim at your target.

This breathing space may help you think about everyone impacted by your change and the secondary effects of what you intend to do.

What is your “pre-game” planning? How will you frame your change into achievable goals?

These goals could be specific, finite times per day engaging in an activity. Other goals may be to shift the ratio away from reacting to change towards considered responsiveness to change.

You can access my brief overview of the psychological techniques for change influence. This overview explores behavioural psychology. One concept — ABC, or antecedents, behaviours and consequences — helps you shape people’s behaviour.

Knowing your ABCs (so to speak) may lead you to think about environmental “cues” on the behaviour you examine. What changes to your environment could act as a trigger to new behaviours (or routines)?


Implementation of change itself really isn’t just implementation. What does that mean?

Many change professionals use the PROSCI ADKAR model to influence change 1. The ADKAR model helps us during implementation by driving us to have an answer to the following:

Awareness. Do people affected by our change have a reasonable “heads-up” of the change ahead? Have we signposted the change in advance, allowing people time to adjust to any change?

Desire. In considering a change, what are the benefits of the change to the people impacted by it? Are there benefits to the entire team too? Superordinate goals are important to consider. People may sometimes place team goals above their goals — yet not always!

Knowledge. What questions might people ask about your change? Are the answers handy and accessible? How would you summarise the “pains” and “gains” if you put yourself in the shoes of various people? These people include anyone who needs to change and customers. Customers can include both upstream and downstream teams.

Ability. Will people impacted by your change need training or socialisation to the change? Would you need to break down the change into concrete steps or behaviours? What do people need to start, stop and keep doing when the change happens?

The last part of the ADKAR model — reinforcement — happens after a change implementation.


Reinforcement. How could you “make change stick”? Will you track target behaviours? Will you reward these behaviours, including the efforts people make to adopt the behaviours — even if they don’t succeed straight away?

In treating patients in a psychological setting, patient performance often gets worse before it gets better. Knowing this in advance may help manage patient expectations. This way of thinking applies to you — an operational or change leader. When aiming to change or influence other’s behaviours, a modicum of patience helps. People’s adoption of a new way of working may seem quite messy or erratic — not to mention people’s emotional state or perception of the change.

Change leaders have three main allies. Patience, long-term planning and attention to implementing and measuring small gains.


1. ADKAR Change Management Model Overview | Prosci. https://www.prosci.com/adkar/adkar-model. Accessed January 11, 2021.



Organisational change, behavioural design and coaching psychology insights — practical and research informed. Clever ways to put a dent in the world.

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Allan Owens

Senior organisational change manager. Provisional Psychologist. Author of The Change Manager’s Companion. www.humanfactorsadvisory.com.au