Is behavioural change in a corporate culture all about timing?

“Is this the right time to change?” may not be the delaying question I often dismiss it as. To see why, read Caroline’s post at the Optimal Usability blog (subscribed to, not surprisingly, by the ever vigilant Alex).

Caroline quotes from this very astute man – BJ Fogg – who runs the Persuasive Technology Lab at Stanford University. Behavioural change, Fogg says, is what happens when Trigger, Ability and Motivation align.

When there is a trigger for change, when people can change and when they are motivated to do so, then changes in behaviour can and will occur. Otherwise, pretty much, forget it.

But each element must be of sufficient strength for the proposed change to succeed.

In order for a trigger to be powerful enough to overcome existing habit or inertia, Fogg believes it must be noticeable, associated directly with the required behavioural shift and timely (it must occur whilst we are motivated and at a time when we can still change).

Ability requires both capability and capacity to make the change required at the time.

Finally, there are three core motivations – sensation (pleasure or pain), anticipation (hope or fear) and social cohesion (acceptance or rejection).

So changing a behaviour is about much more than willpower or necessity. A key element is timing, and more particularly, being able to articulate the relevance and accessibility of a behavioural change at that given point in time. If people don’t feel sufficiently triggered, able or motivated, then a change in behaviour, no matter how sensible, will probably not happen. Equally, Fogg’s conclusions would suggest, companies should actually delay calls for behavioural change if these elements do not align or if the elements themselves are not at maximum potency.

While the approach mirrors my own in two aspects, it differs in one. I have always argued that the sequence is Inspiration – Education (ability) – Motivation. Fogg essentially replaces Inspiration with Agitation. His point, I assume, is that we won’t change until we feel we have to, whereas my own view has always been that people don’t change until they see something better to replace what they know. Far be it from me to argue with a Stanford professor. Perhaps I have indeed under-estimated the power of inertia. If that is so, then I should resequence my approach to be:

  • Agitation – people recognise or are presented with a trigger that powerful enough to incite action.
  • Inspiration – they are offered a vision of what they can achieve and/or the organisation could be at a given point in the future
  • Education – they learn how they can move from where they are to where they need to be
  • Motivation – they feel compelled to do this, individually and as a group, because of how it will make them feel, what they anticipate things will be like if they don’t change or if they do, and because it fits with the social tribe they associate with.

Interestingly, that only makes the case for perfect timing even stronger.

Hat tip to BJ Fogg. Thanks Caroline for a really interesting post about how you applied Fogg’s thinking. Thanks Alex as always.

Disclosure: Originally I thought Trent posted this. He emailed to correct me. Sorry Caroline.

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  4. Another good brew – fab stuff Mark, and thanks for the generous mention. I think you and I have talked about David Maister’s Strategy and the fat smoker (http://changethis.com/manifesto/24.StrategyFatSmoker/pdf/24.StrategyFatSmoker.pdf) before which seems to capture closely where you come out at. He adds a couple of things that I think are important. Change is about WILL not technique, which goes to your point of motivation, but he also says that motivation needs to be intrinsic. One of the most compelling points is that strategy is the ‘diet’ not the goal, which speaks to the amount of resolution required to achieve change. I think if you add to this thinking a fabulous book called Immunity to Change (Robert Keegan) you begin to get some powerful stuff. Keegan talks about setting ourselves visible commitments (what we want to change) without understanding why we aren’t changing. Why we don’t change is often hidden to us, something he calls ‘hidden competing commitments’ which in turn are based on deeply held big assumptions – things that have been with us most of our lives and form foundations to our thinking. It’s sort of an iceberg of an idea, which if we just deal with the visible aspects will do a Titanic on us. His model allows people, quite simply, to understand what big assumptions are preventing them changing, and then to work from there. Ahh – could talk for every on this stuff – it’s so interesting. Thanks for the post.

    • In other words – what we don’t address could be as damaging potentially as what we do? Wow … the jeopardy of assumption.

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