2. Behavior Changes That Stick
“Behavior Changes That Stick” is Forum’s most
frequently downloaded point of view paper of
2010. In this condensed interview, Viv Price and
David Robertson, Forum executive consultants and
authors of the paper, expand on the paper’s systemic
framework to help leaders sustain behavior change.
They also discuss the stumbling blocks to sustaining David Robertson
change and the specific ways our clients have
overcome those challenges.
Forum: What trends are you seeing in organizations that make this point of view so
Robertson: The psychological contract is changing. “Learning is their
The new generation is not expecting a job for life or a currency. So, I think
long length of service. They want to develop in their
career. So, they’re looking for a real learning that they
can apply and be able to talk about real results that for the newer work
they’ve achieved. Learning is their currency. So, I think forces, is a very big
sustainment, especially for the newer work forces, is a issue.”
very big issue.
Price: I think a couple of fairly recent business books (Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell and
Talent Is Overrated by Geoff Colvin) have emphasized that to be a great performer you
need to make a disciplined and sustained effort: it’s helped bring more realism to what it
takes to change behavior.
People realize that however great a learning event, e-learning experience, or simulation
is, it’s not going to translate into behavior straightaway.
Our paper gave people a framework to categorize some ways to help people apply what
they’ve learned in formal learning events back on the job.
Forum: How about the role of new media?
Price: Technology has enabled us to move to more bite- enabled us to move
sized learning. Our virtual instructor-led trainings (VILTs) to more bite-sized
focus on skills or processes that can immediately be
applied on the job. These VILTs are usually two or three in
a series, so there’s built-in accountability because at the
beginning of each session there’s time built in to share what they did, they hear from their
peers, and then they pick up something else.
These small bites help make the learning stick, because there’s this immediate
reinforcement from others on what they’ve done and how it’s worked. We’re giving them
small pieces that they can apply back on the job. It’s really been a wonderful shift in
3. Forum: Let’s shift now from the trends in organizations to our sustainment approach and
framework. What is new about our approach?
Robertson: Sustainment as an idea has really been the elephant in the room for as long
as I’ve been working in the profession, which is nearly 35 years now. Everyone has
known the real value of sustaining and reinforcing the investment in learning.
So, the concept isn’t that new. What is new is the focus “The concept isn’t that
on the different levels of ownership for sustainment
new. What is new is the
activities. We are helping L and D professionals think
through and be intentional about what sustainment focus on the different
the organization can be responsible for, what the line levels of ownership for
manager can be responsible for, and what the individual sustainment activities.”
learner can be responsible for.
Price: I’d add that the right level of ownership is dependent on the organizational
culture. For all of us, applying what you learned can constitute a big risk. And in some
organizations, there’s a lot of control and regulation, and people are discouraged from
taking any risks. In those cases, leaving the sustainment activities to the individual
learner can be problematic. We’d recommend the ownership for learning sustainment in
these organizations should be with the manager of the learner and with the organization
as a whole to make it safe to try out new skills and tools on the job.
In other organizations, the ownership for sustainment can be left to the individual learner.
These are the organizations where risk taking is part of the organizational culture, and so
people feel okay about experimenting with new skills back on the job.
Forum: Can you share an example of how you’ve seen this play out in a client setting?
Robertson: Recently, we did some work with a number of organizations who were
developing the responsibility for safety across the organization. Over the years, they
had tried many different approaches, but always the sustainment of that capability,
knowledge, and standards seemed to drift back somehow to one manager: the safety
Then they began pushing that back from the safety manager to the actual individual.
Safety—and applying the learning on safety—became the responsibility for the individual.
What they didn’t want was for responsibility and ownership issues to come back to the
safety manager. They wanted to make sure that ownership for application of safety
learning is owned across the business, as well as at the line-manager level, and at the
individual level. Then the safety manager can go back to being a subject matter expert in
the business, and consult and support.
So it is different, depending on their particular needs. Often, just the idea of the three
different levels and getting engaged around these levels is the big “aha moment” at the
Forum: How about the opposite? Where have we seen clients struggle with
4. Behavior Changes That Stick
Robertson: People confuse the extra level of ownership and the different sustainment
categories with the need to find budget to do follow-through activities.
In actual fact, the smart money—what you should do—is to think about it at the design
stage. You can create the experience that already has that sustainment built into it,
rather than the standard 2-day experience that takes people away and immerses them.
Forum: What’s another stumbling block that you’ve seen, and how do we help clients
overcome that stumbling block?
Price: I remember a conversation with a head of sales, a few months after a significant
rollout of some work on developing a branded way of selling. He asked, “So how long
before I see results from this?” And the answer was 18 months: “You’ll see some
glimmers, but you won’t get it sustained until 18 months.”
“ ... the smart money—
The answer was shocking to him initially. Then, as what you should do—is
the truth sank in, he realized that there needed to be a to think about it at the
continuing focus on the new brand of sales behaviors to design stage.”
help people stick with trying new skills out and getting
proficient, then becoming an expert. He kept a long-term
focus on the new brand behaviors, and it paid off because people realized they were
expected to keep focusing on applying what they’d learned.
Forum: In “Behavior Changes That Stick,” you advocate choosing the right sustainment
activities based on assessment of learning environment and ownership levels. The four
sustainment activities are the See It, Need It, Do It, Live It framework. Has anything
surprised you as you’ve seen clients start to work with that framework?
Price: If you look at those four activities—See It, Need It, Do It, Live It—the one that
learning organizations have traditionally been great at using is the “Need It.” We’ll give
people an assessment and show them a gap and indicate where they’re strong and say,
“Here are the areas where you can develop, and here’s where you can improve on your
A surprise to me is that often the “See It” sustainment activities are difficult to come by
as part of the normal routine of work. In these situations there are no role models of what
good looks like. Say I’d just learned about change management skills, and there was no
one who was a model of how to manage change effectively in my organization. In that
situation, I can’t see it easily and so it won’t stick for me. When we have situations like
this we have to source examples or stories from other organizations.
With “Live It” (recognizing and sharing what you’ve done), I think the Web 2.0 tools are
great enablers. So, for example, you can immediately share what you’ve learned or the
results you’ve seen from trying out a new process or skill in a Yammer or Twitter posting.
For colleagues, reading about the successes of others can act as a spur to try out the
new process or skill. So I think the social media available now to “Live It” has had a big
impact on uptake.
Forum: Any last thoughts on why this approach is differentiated?
Price: The framework helps you choose sustainment activities that fit your organization’s
learning environment. L and D groups can choose and target the right sustainment
activities and identify the right level in the organization to own and drive these activities.