Dr. Amantha Imber13 February 2019

Three tools that are proven to drive meaningful change in people’s behaviour

When was the last time you were able to change either your own or someone else’s behaviour? And what exactly was it that you did that led to that successful change?

A few months ago, in an attempt to find my own answers to these questions, I decided that I would try to make just a small change – to make flossing a daily habit. I am a strict tooth brusher – I brush my teeth AT LEAST twice a day with an electric toothbrush that tells me exactly when two minutes has passed. But flossing is a different story, I cannot get the hang of it. I don’t like the way the floss cuts off circulation to my fingers and I don’t like the feeling of the floss between my teeth. So, at best – I floss maybe once a fortnight.

The case for why I should be flossing does not need to be made. I know how important flossing is for gum health – I’ve received strict advice from my dentist and I do really want to be a religious flosser (cavities do not appeal to me!). So, why is it then, that six months later, I still do not floss regularly?

The struggles of flossing aside, we can all agree that innovation too, can be a real challenge. And the thing that makes innovation so hard is that it requires people, systems and cultures to change.

If you are wondering how to get middle management to commit to sourcing new product ideas, how to encourage greater debate in your teams or how to get your CEO to actually walk the innovation talk – these are all situations where you need to change behaviour.

After looking into the research and assessing my own behaviour, I’ve come to the conclusion that most times, we tend to underestimate our approach to change. In an attempt to ‘uncomplicate’ things, we will try just one thing and see whether that grants all of our change wishes. I, for example, decided to carry those little floss contraptions everywhere I went – there was always one in my wallet, my handbag, at my desk, and in my toiletry bag. I figured that if it was always available, then whenever I got the urge during the day – I would be able to floss! Problem was, I never got the urge. So then, I tried setting more achievable goals: first, let’s see if I can floss just once a week. That’s an improvement on once a fortnight! Unfortunately, remembering to do something once a week is quite a challenge, so after achieving it in week one, I quickly forgot in week two.

So instead of trying just one or two things, here or there, we need to make a commitment to a collection of tools and ensure that the tools we are using are evidence-based. To get you started, I have cherry-picked three tools that, based on the science, are proven to drive meaningful change in people’s behaviour. Instead of utilising just one, I challenge you to commit to all three!

1. Manufacture and maintain process

Feeling a sense of progress is known to be one of the most powerful factors in driving motivation and we can use this to our advantage in driving behaviour change. In one research study, customers at a local car wash had a goal – buy eight car washes to receive a reward (a free wash!). One group of customers was given a loyalty card that required eight stamps to receive the free wash. A second group of customers was given a loyalty card that required 10 stamps to receive the free wash, with the first two stamps already added. A few months later, 19% of the first group had received a free wash versus 34% in the ‘head-start’ group (they also earned the free wash faster). The key factor driving this difference was that the experimental group were given a sense of progress – at the start, they were already 20% of the way there!

So, highlight to your people what has already been conquered and find a way to help them feel closer to the finish line than they originally perceived. And throughout the journey, be sure to manufacture additional ‘progress points’ to maintain that motivation – for example, by breaking a quarterly goal into weekly sub-goals.

2. “I don’t” versus “I can’t” 

Research into how people can maintain motivation towards long-term goals looks at the importance of the language we use when avoiding temptations and distractions. Just simply saying “I don’t do X” versus “I can’t do X” can increase your likelihood of staying on track with your goals by 64%. Saying “I don’t” versus “I can’t” taps into your sense of empowerment and control, or a lack thereof, which influences the extent to which you then maintain progress towards goals. For your leaders, this might mean encouraging them to rehearse “I don’t speak until everyone has shared their view first” before meetings, or for teams; getting into the habit of saying “We don’t make decisions that don’t benefit our customers” or “We don’t shut down new ideas”.

3. Implementation intentions 

Every day, we will enact thousands of habits without even being consciously aware of it. Most of us have a morning routine made up of hundreds of behaviours that we do with absolutely no effort. The key to change is to set up new habits that make new behaviours as effortless as our current ones.

Implementation intentions, or “if…then…” statements, help us do just that by pre-loading a decision about when and where we will do something in the future. For my flossing example, I might set an implementation intention that “if I get the toothpaste from the drawer, then I will also get my floss out”. A 2005 meta-analysis looking at 8,155 participants across 85 separate studies found that those who set implementation intentions did better than 74% of people on the same task who didn’t set one. The act of an implementation intention may sound overly simplistic, but research has shown that they are three times more effective when applied to ‘hard’ goals as opposed to ‘easy’ goals. So don’t be shy to apply them to your trickiest innovation challenges!

Remember – don’t just try one thing. Try all three tools and let me know how you go! And you have permission to ask me about my flossing progress next time we meet 🙂

Have a great week,


P.S. If this is super interesting to you – be sure to come to our March Masterclass in 2019, that Amantha mentioned! We are cooking up some great tools to help you and your teams unleash change – we’d love to have you!

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