Sebastian Walter: How to Make Behavior Change Stick

Shifts in structures and processes alone cannot make a large-scale transformation—only actual behavior change will drive results. Sebastian Walter, a principal in the Results Delivery practice, shares three critical insights to motivate employees to adopt new solutions and fast-track behavior change. 

Read the Bain Brief: Organizations Don’t Change Behavior, People Do

Read the transcript below.

SEBASTIAN WALTER: When you are embarking on a large-scale transformation, you typically envision a different organization that delivers distinct results. People are working in new structures, in new processes; more efficient decisions are being made faster. Many changes are in place which in the end help you deliver on your top line or improve your cost basis.

Now, it's common wisdom that changing structures and processes will only take you so far. In fact, I've seen too many transformations which didn't deliver results on time, or even failed, because people didn't change their behaviors. They continued in common, well-established patterns. But only actual behavior change is going to drive results in and move the needle.

And I've seen in the end three critical insights [that are needed] to make behavior change happen. First, focus on a few things at a time. Second, be specific. And third, provide positive reinforcement in a structured way.

On the first, people can only change a few things at a time. If you try to change too many things at the same time, people get overwhelmed; nothing's going to happen. In order to avoid that, we focus on so-called moments of truth. A moment of truth is a moment where people have to decide between behavior A and behavior B, but it's a pivotal moment, a highly visible moment. A moment which has huge ramifications. And if you identify these moments right, then you only have to change a few behaviors, because a changed behavior in that moment will have a domino effect. If you get that right, a host of other things will fall into place naturally.

Second, be specific. Many companies, when asked for behavior change, are fluffy and rather unspecific. I've recently worked with a consumer goods company, and they wanted to improve their innovation process. The ask was for their managers to be more customer-centric and relentlessly focus on innovation. The problem was, no one knew what was meant. People started to wing it, interpreted it differently, and they never behaved the way which was intended by top management. [It was] a turning point for top management when we discussed this—and they weren't even able to specifically say what they expected.

In the end, we ran a workshop with management, asked them to identify and specifically define the action they would like to see, and came up with one of the actions, which was to present a new innovation once per month to the chief marketing officer. Easy, simple to understand, easy to apply and adhere to. That, in the end, moved the needle at that company.

Third, talking about positive reinforcements. Trainings will often be forgotten after only a short time. If you provide positive reinforcements, however, in a structured way over time—for example, emails from top management to someone who demonstrated a great behavior following that behavior—people will feel so motivated if they hear that their behavior is appreciated. The art is to do that in a structured way over time, and not just very randomly.

To sum up, if you want to fast-track your behavior change, focus on a few things at a time, be specific, provide positive reinforcements, and that's going to help you to achieve the results that you actually want to have, which is people working in new structures and thus realizing synergies and being faster. People treating your customers differently, and thus improving your customer loyalty. Or people providing more innovations, and thus fueling future revenues.

Read the Bain Brief: Organizations Don’t Change Behavior, People Do