Behaviour Change: Do You Have What It Takes?

4 minute read

29 November 2019

By Insights Team

Innovation Reporter, Upstart


Upstart’s approach to strategy starts by defining and framing a problem statement - we then look at how we can solve that. Almost always that involves a change in behaviour of those involved in addressing the strategic change.  Behaviour change is an often-used, poorly-understood term. Our team’s expert Joel Shopland explores the backdrop behind the why and how of behaviour change.

Primarily, behaviour change exists to solve problems. It attempts to get to the root of a problem, understand the wider determinants that are in play, and identify evidence-based solutions. Whether in public health, transport, sport, or the environment, behaviour change exists to prevent, manage or increase target behaviours

In their book, The Behavioural Change Wheel (BCW), Susan Michie and colleagues identify behaviour as “anything a person does in response to internal or external events” (Michie et al., 2014) 

Identifying a target behaviour needs to be a well-thought-out process. The BCW authors recognise that statements such as reducing obesity, increasing drug adherence, and stopping smoking are all broad targets but don’t define the what, who, where and how of behaviour change. It can be tempting to start with the solution, but first, you need to diagnose the problem in behavioural terms. 

How does behaviour change work? 

Researchers suggest that for any behaviour to occur, three concepts need to be fulfilled. There is a lot more under the hood with each of these components. An easy first step is to think through target behaviours in relation to capability (psychological, physical), opportunity (physical, social), and motivation (reflective, automatic).


So What?

What does this mean for anyone in the business of trying to bring about change? Service designers, product people, marketers, salespeople and managers are all involved in doing this.

Recognise complexity: behaviour change is a complex process involving several pieces which require careful management. There are many change stimuli in play and there isn’t always a quick fix, silver bullet-type solution. 

The COM-B system acknowledges that any target behaviour will be part of a wider system of moving parts such as the physical environment, social opportunities, and an individual’s habitual processes.

Behaviour change means change: unsurprisingly, engaging in a behaviour change process means change. It means change for the problem you’re trying to solve, but it also disrupts your own thinking. Creating a systematic, evidence-based strategy may force you to think differently and challenge assumptions that have always been made.

So Now What?

Once you have defined the problem, understood the behaviour(s) from all angles, you are now in a position to think through intervention options and make a plan. To help you, here are some handy resources.

EAST is a framework designed to summarise and simplify the process of applying behavioural science. EAST recognises that encouraging a behaviour involves making it easy, attractive, timely, and social.

Behaviour Change Taxonomy sets out 93 behaviour change techniques. The key point here is that any technique or insight must be traced back to the initial behavioural diagnosis. Taking the time to prepare and understand behaviour means the intervention will have a greater chance of success. Here is a great online resource to help with training and application of the taxonomy. 

Experiment and evaluate: in any strategy, provision must be made for experimentation, error, and (most importantly), evaluation. This may require backtracking a couple of stages (e.g., re-examine the behaviour, thinking through the different pieces that are in play, trying something else), but it will improve the final outcome and your own learning process. Ultimately, behaviour change should be an exciting, iterative, and disruptive process. 

Intervention rain check: filter the content of the intervention using the APEASE criteria. You could have the best action plan in the world, but you need to ensure it is affordable, practical, effective/cost-effective, acceptable, deals with relevant side effects, and considers equity. 

For more information about how to implement behavioural change into your strategy, product, or service, there are a number of steps you can take:

Check out the Behaviour Change Wheel book and further resources

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