“At least 50% of change initiatives fail to achieve their intended goal”

Why should we tolerate such low success rates in any form of change management? Perhaps we’ve become too tolerant of failure in the space of change, blaming it on complexity and humans’ inability to change.

But humans are change machines. We’ve evolved and survived to dominate the planet by successfully adapting to our environment. Take the COVID experience. How quickly were you able to adapt to the lockdown circumstances and, if your business was allowed to continue, how badly did it affect performance by your employees? At time of drafting, I’ve heard plenty of stories of leaders who are pleasantly surprised by how easy it was to relocate employees to work from home. The greater surprise seemed to be that productivity didn’t fall off, although we have yet to receive any performance data.

In this article, we want to explore the routes to create a change-ready culture building on the theory that humans are highly adaptable and significantly shaped by their environments. Our goal is to ensure that when something resembling ‘normality’ returns, you will have teams and businesses ready to handle the next virus, the next 30% drop in the market, the next ‘crisis’ – whatever that may be.

In this first of two articles, we will explore how and why human beings change their behaviour and adopt new habits. In the second article, we will explore how to apply this to the real world.

Our love-hate relationship with Habits

To understand why people do things and do things in a certain way, we need to understand the influences that create the forces that cause us to act. The majority of things that we do in a day – driving the car, walking, making a drink – are done on autopilot. Ever driven to a destination with no idea what happened on your route? We have done our daily routines so many times that we don’t need to actively think about how to do them. A true habit has been formed, and the frontal cortex (the thinking part of the brain) does not need to be engaged to make it happen. If nothing influences us to change, the same thing will happen every time, and we’ll know very little about it.

The brain is surprisingly energy-hungry, burning around 300 calories per day or 20% of daily calorific intake. Making decisions and executing new learning requires large amounts of brainpower and hence precious energy. The brain has been designed to optimise for energy consumption by allowing heuristic shortcuts which reduce the time and energy spent thinking about something. This often results in the brain reliably repeating errors or experiencing ‘cognitive bias’.[i]

To move people away from existing habits and into new habits, we need to change the influences acting on them. Education and knowledge-based communication could be a natural place to start, but despite popular belief that knowledge conquers all, this is only a small part of the whole story. In most circumstances, we are poor at retaining facts and even worse at adopting new behaviours in response to those facts. Is there a smoker in the world that doesn’t know that it’s going to make them ill and severely curtail their lives? Knowledge alone will not change behaviour in a sustained way or allow for the creation of new habits. Instead, we need to modify the environment to be aligned to the new behaviours so that the humans within these environments find the new behaviours natural and normal, and therefore easier to adopt.

Activate the Four Powers

To change the influences acting on people to effectively and reliably change behaviour, we need to consider and develop four powers. These are:

  1. The Power to Grow Capability (Competence and Confidence)

To make a change in our lives, we need the capacity or skill necessary to engage in the new behaviour. Depending on where you are physically and mentally in the journey towards engaging that new behaviour, this might mean you need early-stage basic learning or more advanced learning related to techniques and improvement as you journey toward extremely high levels of competence, otherwise known as mastery.

In growing capability, it’s easy to neglect the importance of confidence. Not only do we need to be able to mentally or physically engage in the new behaviour but we need to be confident that we can. Many attempts at behaviour change founder due to the individual’s lack of confidence, usually formed by prior life experience. The best-known example is weight loss through dieting –when an individual’s historical failures to lose weight through dietary regime are internalised into a confidence-collapsing story that ‘I can’t lose weight’.   

  1. The Power to Inspire Motivation

Motivation is an overused term in behaviour change and often misunderstood. Motivation can be fleeting, and often is. People see participants’ motivation rise, the box is ticked and they move on. However, for behaviour change to stick, for new behaviours to evolve into new habits, the motivation has to be more than the desire to do something. It has to develop into a compulsion to act. More often than not, this means that the motivation has to be intrinsic, driven from within and characterised by the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine, also known as the ‘happy hormone’.

  1. The Power to Overcome Barriers

When attempting to change, a barrier – unanticipated or unexpected – can emerge to stop us from moving forward. This can be a real barrier that manifests in the physical world (“it’s not safe to run in my neighbourhood”, or “there are no healthy options accessible to me at lunchtime”) or perceived (“I don’t have the time”, or “I don’t have the energy”). Whether real or imagined, the barrier is equally effective at stopping us engaging in the new behaviour and developing a new habit.

Understanding how to identify what the barrier is, and remove or diminish it so that it no longer prevents you from engaging, is one of the key considerations for successful change.

  1. The Power to Resist Temptations

Finally, when we move from previous behaviour patterns – which are represented by a comfort zone – to new behaviour, we are likely to feel discomfort. Temptations are influences trying to lure us back to the way we used to do things (or didn’t as the case may be) because it was ‘comfortable’ there. Worse still, in some cases, these can be ‘dynamic’ – responding to our behaviour change and actively amending their approach to pull us back. A good example of this would be large fast-food companies that are losing market share changing their advertising and marketing to attract back those that it has lost to a health food competitor.

Combining the Powers to Bring About Change

How can we apply all these powers to encourage the adoption of new behaviours? Can they, somehow, help us practice and form new habits over time? According to the Change Craft Change Ability formula, we need to increase the powers of Capability and Motivation and reduce the powers of Barriers and Temptations to create any change.  Therefore, we define Change Ability as:

Change Ability = {Capability + Motivation} – {Barriers + Temptations}

Applying the Change Ability Formula to the Four Contexts

As we noted at the beginning, human beings are excellent at adapting to their environments. We live our lives in an environment that shapes us every minute of every day.  At it’s most simply stated, we find change difficult not because the change itself is complex or difficult but because we typically don’t design our environment to align with and retain the behaviour we’re trying to adopt. By asking someone to adopt a new behaviour or habit without changing their environment to accommodate that change, we are setting both sides up for failure.

To give these environments tangible form, we talk about four contexts – the physical Spaces we inhabit, the virtual Systems that guide us, the Social interactions which are our engagements with other humans, and the Self – the rich, complex entities that are human beings and all their accumulated life’s experiences.

  1. The Spaces Context

The physical spaces that we occupy are tangible and real and yet we tend to pay them little heed as we move through them. They exert a surprising amount of influence on our mindset and demeanour by stimulating the five senses in different ways. In this context, we can give the rooms and spaces we inhabit very different meaning and purpose.

For more information on the Spaces context, see our article ‘The Secret Power of Physical Space to Influence Change’.

  1. The Systems Context

Systems govern significant elements of how we behave.  These include the culture of the company we work in (and to which any change must be subordinate and aligned), the legislation of the country we live in, company rules and regulations, the policies and procedures of our workplace, as well as the unspoken permissions that subtly guide our actions.

  1. The Social Context

COVID has reminded us just how important it is that we regularly connect with other human beings. We are all social animals for whom relationships and belonging are critical for our survival and wellbeing. The influence, therefore, of our family, friends, colleagues, bosses, leaders and others with whom we have social contact, should not be underestimated and is perhaps the most pervasive of the four contexts.

  1. The Context of the Self

Finally, there is the context of the self. Not to be confused with the logical, objective persona we present in day to day life, this is the richly complex and nuanced human being that is the sum of their life’s experiences. This means that everything we see and hear is interpreted through a series of filters based on our beliefs, values, emotions, thoughts, experiences, filters and biases.

Putting It Into Practice: Creating Change in the Four Contexts

Successful change occurs when we adjust the influences (powers) in the Change Ability formula across all four contexts, ideally at the same time. Any well thought out change programme could be significantly undermined, potentially to failure, by weakness in just one of the contexts.

Together the four powers and four contexts constitute Change Craft’s behaviour change framework, often known as the ‘Four Powers’ framework. We’ll go into more detail on how to apply it in practice in the next article, but this includes:

The 11th Habit

For those that want to know more about the behaviour change framework, we recommend reading Hanlie’s book, written with Andrew Sykes, The 11th Habit, which is available in hardback or Audible format.

As always, if you have any thoughts, contributions, challenges or ideas, email us on . We’d love to hear from you.

[i] A cognitive bias (e.g. Ariely, 2008) is a systematic (non-random) error in thinking, in the sense that a judgment deviates from what would be considered desirable from the perspective of accepted norms or correct in terms of formal logic.