Behaviour change, revisited

Please don’t take this too literally, I just need to get this off my chest.

A while back, Mark posted some good provocative challenges to notions about behaviour change. Geoff has just weighed in with some good thoughts of his own.

The gist of it is (for me) that huge amounts of hand-wringing conversations go on in organisations about how to make people behave differently. These overlook the statistical evidence and common sense experience, that most of these efforts fail and/or have unintended consequences. Yet we continue to while away the time devising the next experiment in alchemy.

Our organisations seem to have a surplus of very intelligent people who are, unconsciously, sweating blood trying to sort out the perceived issues of lots of other very intelligent people, in a series of recursive loops of dizzying complexity.

Meanwhile, we’re so busy dreaming up desirable futures for each other, that we don’t notice all the subtle changes that are going on around us anyway. And while we craft our master strategies, we don’t even think about the little experiments we could make to nudge the system and see what happens.

You know, stuff we could do right now, or at least in the next day or so.

I’m starting to notice that the more discussions revolve around the importance of strategy, purpose and other such abstractions, the more likely I am to start daydreaming about what to have for tea or going for a nice walk somewhere.

Yes, I’m being a little facetious but I guess I’m saying it might be more productive to focus our energies on stuff in the here and now, to do with our immediate personal impact and well-being and possibly that of people we actually care about.

Heaven knows, the world faces some awesome problems but grandiosity is definitely not the answer.


8 thoughts on “Behaviour change, revisited

  1. David Spira

    But it’s so much easier to strategically plan for a future that may or may not happen. Short-term and actionable strategy, or tactics for the here and now require effort and the possibility of failure.

    If one doesn’t act, he/she cannot fail.

  2. The Weblog of (a) David Jones

    Herding cats and behaviour change

    My focus for the last couple of weeks was a presentation – Herding cats and losing weight: How to improve learning and teaching. One description of the argument of that presentation is:
    To improve learning and teaching within a university you …

  3. Johnnie Moore

    Great post, Johnnie and, luckily for me, my first read of the day, thanks to @adverts (London) update on Twitter.

    We humans never learn, do we? Or at least that’s something that’s come out the recent financial crisis. It all happened before and we should have known better.

    But things are complicated.

    However, that’s no reason to make them more complicated.

    It’s not easy but you have to try to disrupt negative patterns. But in a postive way. I guess you’ve read the book ‘Nudge’ and the example that springs immediately to mind is the image of a fly painted on to a urinal.

    The problem was splashing on to the floor but the solution involves a game or challenge perfectly suited to the target audience – aim for the fly with your stream – and lo and behold you get more splash where you want it (in the urinal) and less where you don’t (the floor).

    We all need to aim for solutions like that.


    Thanks for the comments. And yes, Chris you’re question is quite valid, the challenge is to “be the change” as much as possible.

  4. Geoff Brown

    Unlike Hayes, your post is the last read of my day before going to bed.

    After 4 days of running the house with my 3 young boys (whilst my wife is in Mauritius on a well deserved break) I can only agree with the need to ‘nudge’ the system a little and be in the ‘here and now’.

    Cheers, Geoff

  5. Charles

    I just checked to see if this was eligible for post of the month but it will have to wait till next month I see.

    Your blog has been on fire of late Johnnie, but this post specifically is a devastating critique of 20th century anachronistic organisational thinking.

    “Recursive loops of dizzying complexity” is tucked in the belt for plundering shamelessly when everyone has forgotten about it but I haven’t… as is the delightful alchemy…a withering word that so accurately sums up the delusion I’ve both been under the spell of and no doubt will endure some more as karmic return on my own grandiosity of the past.

    A good walk in the park next time I’m in London Johnnie. I look forward to that a lot.

  6. Simon Goh

    It’s so true, we can’t change things. Whatever we were trying to “change”, it’s in fact a new set of behaviours that people need to adapt. And we need to step into the mud with them and experience what it feels like making the next step. There’s no fix formula to this, just constant conversation, empathy, lots of guts and endurance.

  7. Johnnie Moore

    Simon: I think you’re right – the challenge is to step into the mud. The easy cop-out, one I’ve been guilty of myself enough times, is to encourage others to get muddy from the sidelines.


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