Behavioural change is not what you see, but what others see
October 29, 2019

The Interim Report of the APS Review talks about the need to change behaviour across the APS. While the focus is mostly on the need to be more collaborative, the Review sees the need for the APS to grapple with ‘fragmentation and the cultural and behavioural change required to tackle cross-cutting issues.’

For David Schmidtchen and Sally Dorsett, who lead Synergy’s People and Organisational Development practice and Synergy’s Creative Director Jason Perelson, the question becomes: what does it take to truly change behaviour in such a strong institutional culture?

To answer the question, they have adopted Marcel Proust’s view: “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeing new sights, but in looking with new eyes.”

“The APS is changing all the time, but it is largely adaptative and responsive. It is the immediate adaptation to financial pressures in the shape of efficiencies, targets, and savings. This drives a cascade of uncontrolled change that are expressed in terms of initiatives, reform, and transformation. The effect is organisational confusion, increased complexity, distraction from core tasks, and the dilution of resources and effort. The primary focus then is on making change, or the change programme.” says Schmidtchen.

Like many governments, the APS has become enamoured with ‘nudge’ or ‘behavioural insights’. Nudge units and nudge experts have been proliferating across the APS over the last few years applying the methods to influence the community, and occasionally, the workforce in APS departments and agencies. Put simply, nudge is largely about the psychology of incentives and persuasion. In the language of the field, by constructing an appropriate choice architecture nudge can be a powerful tool for affecting behaviour.

“Nudge is not new; but the tools and techniques have been popularised, so the understanding is now more widespread. My concern though is with the way that nudge is talked about, and change applied in the APS. If we think about behavioural change as akin to art, then nudge is a useful brush that we’re fond of using. Unfortunately, we have become so fascinated by the brush that we have forgotten how to paint and the reason we’re painting in the first place.” says Perelson.

There is an enormous amount written on nudge and change techniques but precious little on the limitations of existing practice. If we are fans of muddling through, we cite the famous line ‘70% of change initiatives fail’. If we are advocates of change, we argue a rational management approach that discounts the involvement or agency of people. In both cases, behavioural change is seen through the eyes of the overseers of change rather than the eyes of those who will need to make change—the workforce. The incentives are institutional, not behavioural.

“Our experience is that culture and behaviour are local. If you want people to collaborate across agencies, then start with individuals and teams. It is an intensive process to get underneath the behaviour we see in the workplace to understand what is driving that behaviour. We find that organisational history, behaviour learned over time, poor work design, complex systems, and clarity of purpose, direction and role all shape how people behave. The APS Employee Census shows you where to look but it doesn’t tell you what’s going on.” says Dorsett.

“The effect of all this change works directly against the APS review goal to improve collaboration. The way change is done values generalists over specialists, reduces change to responsiveness rather than a set of coordinated actions taken over time, it creates rivalries and competition as agencies and functions compete for limited resources, it hollows the organisation as critical workforce resources are moved to manage the nearest demand, and it leads to workforce shortages and fading skills,” says Schmidtchen.

Schmidtchen, Dorsett, and Perelson are working with their clients to develop new ways to address the challenges of behavioural and cultural change. They are calling it ‘CreativeXPeople’.

“The way organisational reform is thought about has become very rote and transactional. With a focus on the brush, not the picture, and we’ve completely lost sight of the purpose of Art. As CreativeXPeople, we believe that behavioural and cultural change should start with the effect you are trying to achieve and the experience you want people to have.” says Perelson.

“We are bringing together the best of where David and I have worked, working on how to shape people, work, organisation, and how technology interacts to improve performance and the experience of work with Jason’s experience in creative strategy, campaigns and advertising, which brings a deeper understanding of shaping behaviour. We have found each other at Synergy and already we think the whole is greater than the sum of the parts,” says Dorsett

“Changing behaviour and culture requires more than the mechanical application of techniques. It requires strategy, an understanding of the real issues, and an orchestrated approach that draws on the experience of people who can see past the brush, who can create the picture, but most importantly, who understand that change is an experience for the workforce.” Says Schmidtchen

Behavioural and cultural change is not a rational process that can be managed. It is not an initiative that can be put in place and expected to naturally achieve the desired end state. Rather, it requires us to abandon the pursuit of the perfect brush, in favour of the open canvas. We need to understand the importance of time and scale so that we can pursue opportunities to shift, influence and motivate behaviours in ways that make lasting, impactful and meaningful change in new and exciting ways. Schmidtchen, Dorsett and Perelson are thinking beyond the textbook manifestations of behavioural theory and into new and uncharted territory. They are venturing into domains that are reserved for explorers, adventurers and artists.

About CreativeXPeople

CreativeXPeople is a journey of exploration through practice. Our objective is to get to a complete approach to organisational change that is supported by techniques that are grounded in a more complete understanding of human psychology and behaviour in the workplace.