The Science of Successful Organizational Change

The Science of Successful Organizational Change


This week Steven dives into Chapter 7 of Paul Gibbons’ book The Science of Successful Organizational Change.  Change is a central activity of every organization.  How changes happen is not as straight forward commanding that change happens.  No one likes to be changed or manipulated.  Self-organization maximizes the impact of change but alas no change is like waving a magic wand.  Remember to use the link in the essay to buy a copy of the book to support the author, the podcast, and the blog!

Special note – we at 3 or 4 weeks from the end of this re-read.  I will publish a poll for the next week soon.  Are there suggestions?

– Tom

“The Science of Changing Behaviors”, under Change Tactics, is the subject of Chapter 7 in Paul Gibbons book, The Science of Successful Organizational Change (get your copy).

Chapter 7 – The Science of Changing Behaviors

Gibbons states an obvious, but often overlooked, maxim about change to begin Chapter 7 –
“Major change requires behavioral change” (p. 189)

The book instructs us to rely on internal motivations over external motivations because psychology research has shown that rewards don’t continue to shape people’s behaviors when the reward is reduced or eliminated.

“If this is correct (rewards do not change behavior long-term), as subsequent research confirmed, then every time we use a carrot to nudge behavior in a direction that we want, we make the task a little more about the reward and less about the joy of doing it.” (p. 193)

“Do rewards motivate people?” asks Alfie Kohn, author of Punished by Rewards.
“Yes. They motivate people to get rewards.”

Beliefs and Behaviors

Which is more dominant, a person’s beliefs or behaviors?
No contest according to Gibbons – “when there is cognitive dissonance between beliefs and behavior, it is the beliefs that give way, not the behaviors” (p. 196). (Note – the SPaMCAST Blog recently published an essay that echoed a similar theme. – Tom)

“People do not resist change, they resist being changed.” – Peter Senge (p.191)

Gibbons lays out his recommendation to focus on behaviors as the key change tactic:

“We need behavioral change, but coercion, including rewards, destroys intrinsic motivation, damages trust, is ethically worrisome, and does not work well (if at all).  On the other hand, if we limit ourselves to purely cognitivist methods of influence, we rely too heavily on alignment of intention and action.” (p. 196)

Note:  about “alignment of intention and action” – remember “Mind the Gap” from the Introduction (week2 re-read posting)?   “Mind the Gap” between what people say or want to-do versus what people actually do.


“You can act your way into a new way of thinking, rather than think your way into a new way of acting.” (p. 198)

Neobehaviorism is a big improvement over the Behaviorism that emerged in the 1920s and incorporates ideas that work and reduces coercive tactics.

Gibbons experience as a change management leader is golden.
“Where I have seen behavioral change fail and thereby cripple a major program, there has been one standout cause.  The change was not specified in detailed behavioral terms.”  (p. 198)

The above quote had a footnote with it – “Culture is critical too.”

One of Gibbons’ recommendations to remedy that lack of detail is to use checklists!  Tell people what you want them specifically to-do and spend less time on vision, engagement, inspiration, and communications.  Behavior is the real mirror into beliefs.

Often change management initiatives leave the “how-to implement a change” to the people on the ground.  From my agile background, I recommend co-creating checklists of behaviors.  Co-created checklists are (1) more complete for the jobs being done and (2) have more buy-in from those who (should) use it.

A second technique Gibbons recommends is VSC – Visualize, Specify and Commit.  The components of the acronyms mean:

  1. Visualize – what does the change of behavior look like when you are performing it?
  2. Specify – what behaviors/habits are being changed?
  3. Commit – what triggers the usage of the new behavior?

I will add two other techniques that should be in your toolbox and are useful for behavior changes:

  1. Provide answers for the whole change behavior, cover the Who, What, Where, Why, and How.
  2. Visual calendar – when implementing a new process such as scrum, which has several meetings/ceremonies defined, a visual calendar helps people learn the new process. Well, at the very least, the team members will be there at the correct time.

Changing Those Habits

Gibbons says it well, “People do not like to be bludgeoned into a new behavior”.  (p. 201)

People do and do not like being told what to do.  We need specific instructions to help the change initiative through, but if too-heavy handed will generate resistance.  While most people do not like to be told what to-do, but there are techniques to help people along.

Choice Architects or Nudges

  1. Default Settings – set the default to help people make choice you prefer; I worked with a user design team that had a saying – “settings are virtually invisible” – the vast majority of people do NOT look-at or change those default settings.
  2. Limit the number of options; too many options confuse people and actually prevent the “call-to-action” from occurring.
  3. Choice architecture; items at eye-level, at the beginning, or end of a list generate more attention than those in the middle or out of immediate sight.

Groups and Changing Habits

“habits are even harder to shift in groups (and businesses)” (p. 207)

Gibbons provides an excellent example, where a promoted manager wanted to carve out quality morning time, when the brain is fresh, for strategic and proactive issues.  But the company culture had an unwritten “15 minute” response time to emails that challenged this new time-management behavior that the manager was trying to adopt.

Two Tips on Forming Habits

This manager had tried to change her working habits through an implementation intention (when-then).  When I start work, then I will do high impact activities.  I will not go into email first, but instead do strategic planning or work on larger issues that are best done when the brain is fresh.

Gibbons habit mastery trick goes beyond the when-then formula and also includes mini-habits – start very, very small.  Example:  start a new habit of building strength by doing push-ups by starting off with one push-up a day until a habit is formed.  “The major insight is:  Forming the habit is more important than achieving any number of ‘reps’.” (p. 209)

Gibbons recommends the e-book “Mini Habits:  Smaller Habits, Bigger Results” by Stephen Guise.  Another related book, published in “The Science of Successful Organizational Change”, is “Think Small: The Surprisingly Simple Ways to Reach Big Goals” by Owen Service and Rory Gallagher.  A subject of a 2017 Freakonomics Podcast episode []

To paraphrase Gibbons (p. 210) – Small habits get you in the game of doing something, rather than standing on the sidelines just waiting for the right moment to start.

Four Strategies on Breaking Habits

We need to create new habits and also to break old habits.  New habits start our automaticity (actions that require no conscious thought to start) and the other to remove the automaticity that is already in place.

Gibbons list of techniques for breaking habits includes:

  1. Stop doing the poor habit or abstinence – Gibbons includes this for completeness and acknowledges this strategy has limited effectiveness for several types of habits.
  2. Replacement: replace a poor habit with a better habit.  This is where the above “when-then” tip can help.  Specify “when” a new habit is triggered and “then part” replaces that old habit.
  3. Go back to conscious control. For me, the only effective way to lose weight is to consciously count-calories for a while.  (I have the same issue – Tom)
  4. Choice architecture – set-up your environment, so you can mindlessly do the better habit. Back to the diet / consuming fewer calories example:  smaller plates means you will unthinkably eat slightly smaller portions.  Moving food or drink off the table also helps us consume less, because our tendency is to not stand-up and walk-over for more.  Make that poor habit (really) inconvenient to-do.

know about” and “know-how”

Gibbons talks about two different understandings of knowledge:

  1. Propositional Knowledge (know-about)
  2. Practical Knowledge (know how)

As a former runner and current bicyclist, I can only improve if I both think about new training methods/techniques and then DO them.  You can never only read about new training methods and expect to improve.

Gibbons presents the 70-20-10 model (p. 214) for business, where research has concluded that

  1. 70% of business learning is working on tough problems
  2. 20% of business learning is from peers
  3. 10% of business learning is from course or books

That says much about the value of real-world experience and the hypothesis-driven approach that lean methods promote.

“Know-about” is behavioral learning and from Gibbons experience, his recommendations are (pages 217 – 219)

  1. Behavioral change programs should last one to two years, where the participants learn a little and then apply a little (repeat); immersive 6-week programs are not nearly as effective.
  2. Use shorter bite-sized sessions, rather than full day sessions.
  3. Just in time training approach – time the training subject when it is more likely to have an impact on related business issues.
  4. Program objectives are stated in financial terms or business outcomes.
  5. Challenge participants to use the new idea(s) to deliver the business outcomes established.
  6. Link the application of the learning program to performance management for the participant; focused more on the adaptation and attitude, than outcomes. That way it becomes safe to fail while learning.
  7. Involve the participates manager in the preprogram goal setting and post-program review.
  8. Schedule follow-up events to support the know-how knowledge transfer.
  9. Connect the change program to the business strategy and business vision.
  10. Pay incentives to educators/coaches based on business results (whoa!)


Gibbons continues to cover Change Tactics and tells us how to-go about changing behaviors

  1. I did 1 push-up today and it wasn’t so bad (i.e., mini habits).
  2. Behaviors top beliefs when there is a disconnect.
  3. Use what Gibbons refers to as Neobehaviorism to help your change programs and help people change their habits.
  4. Gibbons provides useful advice on how-to start a habit and break a habit.
  5. Understand the difference between “know-how” and “know about” – and make sure your change initiative coaches people mostly by doing.
  6. Gibbons presents a 10-point guide for planning and delivering effective behavioral learning programs.

Next week we continue on Change Tactics and the focus is changing people’s beliefs – Chapter 8 “The Science of Changing Heart and Minds”.

Previous entries in the re-read of the book The Science of Successful Organizational Change (buy a copy!)

Week 1: Game Plan

Week 2: Introduction

Week3; Failed Change

Week 4: Change Fragility to Change-Agility

Week 5:  Governance and the Psychology of Risk

Week 6: Decision Making in Complex and Ambiguous Environments

Week 7: Cognitive Biases and Failed Strategies

Week 8: Misunderstanding Human Behavior