The behavioural science of good change management

One of the universal truths of business is that change is hard.

But does it have to be?

This question is at the heart of the latest episode of Talking Agility. Two of Accenture’s leading experts on change management, Diana Barea, a Managing Director for Accenture Strategy and Andy Young, our Global Financial Services Talent & Organization Lead, joined me to discuss how changing change management can unlock a growth mind set for individuals and enterprise agility for organizations.

Here are some highlights from our conversation.

There’s an art to the science of change

Scientific disciplines ranging from neuroscience to evolutionary biology to behavioural economics have recently produced important insights into how humans process change—as individuals and as groups.

“Behavioural science has been changing the way we do change,” says Diana. “It all comes back to understanding how the brain actually works.”

This understanding is so powerful, in fact, that Andy offers a word of caution when using it to drive change.

“I like to use the phrase ‘Make it cool, not creepy,’” he says. “Good science, when well applied, leads to co-creating with people whereas a bad application is manipulating people and behaving with less integrity.”

Agile is a state of mind

As we’ve mentioned before on Talking Agility, there’s no such thing as one-size-fits all when it comes to enterprise agility. But insights from behavioural science can accelerate and empower agile change at any organization because they help us deal with any kind of change.

“Often people focus on tools and technology that will enable more agility,” says Diana, “but so much of it is the belief—what a person believes they do at an organization. Behavioural science can help us see what works and what doesn’t with experiments and randomized controlled trials.”

I should mention that these experiments and trials are not peer-reviewed studies you read about in the pages of prestigious journals. Andy and Diana both encourage running experiments within the business as a way to both test new ideas and offer social proof that a proposed change will bring benefits.

Getting people to try new things in their day job is a crucial step to follow up change workshops or training sessions, says Diana.

“Trying new things in the day job is vital,” she says. “It needs to be a safe playground with the task you’re expected to perform. You have ownership, accountability, you’re empowered to make it different or better.

“So you’ll stay with whatever works because your fingerprints will be all over it.”

There’s no proof like social proof

One of the most powerful insights on change management from behavioural science is that we all have a conformist streak in us.

“Parts of our brain are, let’s say, somewhat lazy,” says Andy. “We’re social animals; we look for social proof and then lean into things we’ve done 100 times before.”

“We’re herd animals,” says Diana. “Humans do what they see other humans do because it takes less cognitive energy to follow the crowd than it does to stand alone.

“That’s what we need to harness in transformation. When everyone starts acting in new ways, it becomes harder to do the old. The old gets left behind.”

The real trick, then, is to get everyone acting in the new way. This might seem like a chicken-and-egg situation, but it can be resolved with two simple ideas: adding fuel and removing friction.

Dan Ariely uses this framework, which we’ve picked up with delight,” Diana says. “Fuel is creating energy for new behaviours. It’s fuel that the new way is how we should act.

“Leaders are fundamental to adding fuel, as are a lot of HR processes. If you reinforce the new by giving people money, permission, status, by encouraging the new way of acting, it retains.”

Friction, meanwhile, is any kind of barrier to new ways of working. Friction can be caused by structural issues or by individuals.

“Naysayers saying, ‘the new won’t last, don’t go with it, sit this one out,’—that’s friction,” says Diana.

Like a walk to the beach

Andy presented an analogy of behaviour change that I found powerful. (Long-time Talking Agility listeners will know that I am a big fan of analogies.)

“How we behave is like taking your favourite walk,” he says. “Your current habits are the path you take through that walk. But you’ve heard from an outdoorsy friend that there’s a great beach nearby. The nicest beach ever! It’s an emotional hook to do something different. You come off your familiar path.

“The first time finding that beach is hard. You don’t know where you’re going. Grass is scratchy. But you get there, it’s fun, it’s beautiful. Next time on your walk, you go back. Each time you walk the path it becomes easier and easier—especially if you’re going there with friends. It becomes the path you always walk without thinking about it.”

“That’s how we unlearn old behaviours and learn new ones. As leaders in organizations, we can help people try things out themselves without telling them where to go.”

If you liked what you read, listen to the full episode

To hear my full conversation with Diana and Andy, including their advice on managing change in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, tune in to the latest episode of Talking Agility here:

You can reach me here or share your feedback through your preferred podcasting platform by commenting under each episode.

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