Three principles of scaling behavioural change

10 April 2020 6 min. read
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Embedding behavioural change in organisations is one of the most challenging parts of any transformation. Roger Philby, the chief executive of London-based human capital consultancy The Chemistry Group, outlines how behavioural change can be scaled successfully.

Knowledge is not behaviour. If it were, we wouldn’t speed, smoke or fail to keep a two metre social distance from each other when we know that these things are bad for us and everyone around us.

At The Chemistry Group, we have helped many companies create effective organisational change and I wanted to share some of the key principles that will be useful for people undergoing the fairly major, enforced changes that are our current reality. These principles will not only help now but will also be vital for those determined to emerge from the current crisis stronger and more successful than before.

Firstly, let me rewind to why and how we developed these principles. Chemistry has just finished a big piece of insight work for an FTSE 100 multinational organisation. The client was worried that with a huge change of context (post-financial crash) salespeople were struggling with new ways of working, and it was showing up. With two months gone, they were already 7% behind their revenue target and engagement across the team was falling fast. 

Three principles of scaling behavioural change

Anticipating this the client had put their 150 managers through rigorous and extensive management training. Not for the first time, Chemistry's insight proved that the return on a training initiative was nothing, absolutely nothing. Chemistry's data clearly showed that most of the managers had the intellect, personality, motivation and experience to succeed, they just weren't. The problem was that the organisation had conflated knowledge with behaviour. 

Our analytics and insight were clear. This organisation needed to focus on three behaviours to turn around its revenue gap, only three: 

  • developing others through active coaching and mentoring
  • setting realistic targets and monitoring them to give feedback
  • robust idea exploration to enable effective decision making

When the client challenged us to help them implement these behaviours, we started gathering information, looking for data-driven insights. What was out there in the world of training/learning & development could help initiate scale behavioural change?  

We found nothing. Until, I happened to find myself in a dentist's waiting room around this time. Bored and leafing through a very old copy of Weight Watchers magazine and suddenly boom!! We had the answer. Within three weeks we had studied Weight Watchers and Alcoholics Anonymous and within six weeks we had a behavioural change methodology that scaled across an organisation of 1,000+ people.

The perfect analogy

It turns out weight loss is a perfect analogy for what is wrong with training in organisations. Like all of us that have struggled to lose weight, these sales managers knew what to do, they just didn't do it. I know I need to exercise and run a calorie deficit, I even know what to eat and what exercises to do...I just don't do it? Why not? Because I don't have time, because I have other pressing things to do, because, because, because. How many times have you run those kinds of thoughts through your head at home and at work? If you are anything like me, too many to count. 

“Make sure behavioural change is led by one of the cohort and delivered within groups of peers. And, focus on one thing at a time.”
– Roger Philby, CEO of The Chemistry Group

So, having studied Weight Watchers and Alcoholics Anonymous, Chemistry created a set of principles of behavioural change for the workplace. Three of them are outlined below:

1. Behavioural change needs a support network
Make the behavioural change in groups, at Chemistry we call them Pods. There is a reason all Weight Watchers classes and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings are groups of people. Behavioural change is hard, you need support from people who are all going through the same change.

Not only does instituting the change in a group encourage support – it also adds motivation. Whether people lack rigorous self-discipline or have a competitive streak that means they perform best against others, a group dynamic can motivate people to adopt the behaviours they know they should more quickly, and more effectively. 

2. A subject expert is the wrong teacher
Behavioural change has to be led by one of the cohort going through the change, not an expert. The person leading the Weight Watchers class was often not the kind of fitness influencer we see plastered all over social media, that's the point. Managers are far more likely to listen to one of their peers who has achieved the change they are trying to make and accept candid feedback from this person.

Having a peer in the behavioural change process is also likely to result in more effective and accurate feedback, as they will have a more in-depth and immediate experience of the context and process, rather than just a finished idea of what the end result should look like. 

3. Focus on one step at a time 
Do one thing at a time, get great at it, be consistent, then do the next thing. In the above example, we worked on one behaviour for three months and only when we hit a level of consistency did we introduce the next behaviour. 

Finally, focus on managers of people. For our client, just 150 managers caused a wave of behavioural change that turned around an organisation's fortunes. 7% behind their target in February, the organisation ended up beating it by 14%, achieving the market-leading position for the first time in eight years and receiving industry-wide accolades.