Introducing the toolbox of the behavioral manager

Interview with the great behavioral change designer Ph.D. Amy Bucher: Introducing the toolbox of the behavioral manager through fourteen questions.

About Amy

Amy Bucher is a recognized American psychologist from Harvard University and a Ph.D. in Organizational Psychology from the University of Michigan. Amy has been working at Mad*Pow since 2016 and is the vice president. Mad*Pow is a digital design agency that focuses on improving people’s experiences with technology, services, and organizations. Amy works on an evidence-based behavioral design for some of the world’s leading organizations, including Bank of America, Fidelity, McKesson, Timberland, Google, Microsoft, and Intuit. Her aim is maximizing conversion rates, increasing retention, and reducing costs.

Mad*Pow was recognized by INC Magazine as one of America’s fastest-growing companies in 2010 and has offices in Boston, Portsmouth, NH, and Louisville, KY. Before Mad*Pow, Amy worked at CVS Health, Johnson & Johnson Health and Wellness Solutions, and at Big Communications for several years.

Amy Bucher is the author of the book Engaged: Designing for Behavior Change (2020) published by Rosenfeld Media. The book primarily focuses on how behavioral design can help digital platforms harness their huge potential to enhance user experiences and lives by developing scalable, affordable, and personal behavioral interventions. The book is filled with fascinating, concrete, and easy tips for implementing behavioral psychology in digital contexts and products so that your users fall in love with your product.

Amy also regularly writes posts about psychology, motivation, health, and well-being on her website , where she humbly shares her expertise and her personal opinions. Her insights are simple, professional, and filled with enriching, relatable examples. And when Amy is not working with behavioral design, she reads 150 books a year and travels the world — one (behavioral) journey at a time.

In this interview, we asked Amy 14 important questions about behavioral mangement, and the tools these utilize and the challenges they face! Here are Amy’s answers.

Question 1: Why do organizations only succeed with 50% of their change projects?

A word we don’t use enough when describing change goals is sustained. The objective of a change project is typically not making a one-time adjustment, but rather creating a new way of behavior that endures for the long term. Organizations that don’t have a long-term mindset around their change projects miss an opportunity to operationalize them effectively.

There are multiple frameworks to help organizations think through the long-term sustenance of a change project, but one from behavior change that is relatively simple is COM-B and the behavior change wheel. COM-B requires a behavioral manager to identify the specific behavioral targets, and then the barriers that people have to perform the behavior. The barriers are categorized as belonging to capability, opportunity, or motivation. The model then points to specific intervention functions that can be used in a design to influence outcomes based on which barriers were identified.

COM-B covers many of the common barriers to change within organizations. For example, the incentive structures that prioritize short-term results over long-term efforts for both employees and management would be identified as motivational barriers. Then, the behavioral manager would examine the incentives structure in the organization and determine how to shift metrics to better position change projects. Similarly, a common barrier to long-term change is not feeling enough of a sense of progress. People may believe the project isn’t working when in fact it is. This is both a capability and motivation barrier and can be addressed in part by setting expectations early about what progress might look like, and identifying milestone points at which change will be large enough to be quantified.

I also think organizations sometimes miss the importance of consistency and modeling in their change efforts. Change messages are strongest when they echo through all layers of organizational culture and are reflected in behaviors from management to the lowest level employees. For a change effort to succeed, there should be no mixed messages about its importance, and even the top levels of leadership should visibly participate.

Question 2: What are the top five frictions to change in modern everyday organizations?

One of the biggest frictions is how success is measured. Many modern organizations report their financial progress on a quarterly or monthly basis; these reports help determine investor support and drive marketing and press coverage. Such a short-term focus disincentivizes organizations from the slow work of sustained change.

Relatedly, many organizations have a culture that prioritizes immediacy. If a project doesn’t quickly show value, it’s deemed unsuccessful and cut short. With some change efforts requiring months or years to show results, this focus on immediacy is a huge friction. It’s helpful to identify “quick win” success metrics that can build confidence while the more critical long term metrics are in process.

From an individual perspective, two big frictions are motivation and the discomfort of change. First, motivation is the desire to perform a behavior or achieve an outcome. Often organizational change initiatives align with the motivations of executives or management. They’re designed to achieve corporate key performance indicators (KPIs) that aren’t directly meaningful to lower-level employees. Employees typically do have motivations that could support change initiatives — most people want good compensation, to feel accomplished at their jobs, and to contribute to their organizational community — but the people designing the change initiative don’t capture their perspective in the way the initiative is structured and framed. It’s worth spending the time to align change with a fuller set of stakeholder motivations. From the discomfort of change angle, well, change is hard. In organizations, it’s often not the leaders who bear the brunt of making the most changes in their day-to-day experience. Yet the leaders are the ones who direct the change. Again, it’s worth spending the time to include a fuller set of stakeholder voices in the change process, even if ultimately an executive or manager makes the decisions.

A fifth friction is unrealistic perceptions. When an organization compares itself against companies receiving positive press, they aren’t usually being exposed to the growing pains it took to achieve success. If you don’t realize the level and intensity of investment one organization made to become best in class, it’s easy to minimize it. It’s also very easy to overlook the role of luck in success.

Although it happens for very understandable reasons, organizations do themselves and their industries no favors by presenting the best possible version of their “becoming stories.” In doing so they deprive others of the opportunity to learn what it really takes to achieve lasting change and reinforce unrealistic perceptions that success is easily won.

Question 3: What is the job of a behavioral manager?

A behavioral manager is a scientist-designer. They are responsible for identifying the changes in behavior on the part of internal or external actors in order to bring about critical outcomes metrics, and designing interventions to accomplish and sustain those changes. Successfully doing this requires understanding the existing circumstances surrounding the target behaviors and the barriers standing in the way of change (research), crafting the program to shift the behaviors (design), and measuring its impact along the way (research) in order to make incremental improvements (design) and maximize results. The specific form these activities take will depend on the problem space and available solution set.

Question 4: What is the most important lesson from behavioral science which the behavioral manager should practice every day leading change to lasting impact?

I really like a simple set of three truths that was generated through an ongoing collaboration of behavior scientists I’m a part of. I included them in my own book and think they help frame any behavior change endeavor:

  • People are different
  • Context matters
  • Things change

The lesson at the heart of these three truths is that you cannot make assumptions that what worked in one environment will work in another without adjustments. It’s important to pay attention to the details of the people and situation in which you’re trying to make change, and be open to the probability that you will need to adjust your approach over time. The successful behavioral manager is curious, pursues new information, and does not take for granted that what worked yesterday will work today.

This is not to say that we can’t have a consistent approach in our behavior change projects! The adjustments I’m taking about are usually in the margins. We aren’t completely changing course from day-to-day, but may need to nudge our steering wheel a few degrees in either direction as our road curves.

Question 5: What is the difference between the project management concept as let’s say ADKAR and behavior management?

I was not familiar with ADKAR specifically, so I can’t comment on it in detail.

In general, a distinction between behavior management and behavior-focused project management is the level of depth and the model of change that underlies the work. The nice thing about a behavior-focused project management model is that it packages the tools of behavior change so they can be deployed by someone without their needing to intricately understand theories of motivation or how to develop an outcomes plan. They democratize the tools of behavior change work.

I would expect a behavior manager to be able to construct many of the change tools and measurements themselves based on both an understanding of behavior change models and the research they’ve conducted on their target population. They might choose to use an existing change model like ADKAR, but be comfortable to adjust it or layer additional tools as indicated by their research.

Question 6: What characterizes a tool in a behavioral toolbox?

Not all behavioral toolboxes contain the best tools, but I think two things characterize the tools that belong in a well-curated behavioral toolbox.

First is that the tool comes from an evidence base. It has been developed as the result of research, and adapts to accommodate new findings over time. When I’m evaluating a behavior change tool, I always look for the depth and robustness of the evidence base as a first principle.

Second is that the tool actually addresses behavior, at least in part from the actor’s perspective. That sounds obvious but some tools seem behavioral but don’t really get at actions or the people performing them. One example is the McKinsey 7s model for change.

It contains some of the same elements that many behavioral tools do, such as considering goals and incentives, but it does so in a way that’s clearly tied to the management perspective. I would expect someone using this model could create the conditions for individual behavior change but would overlook actor motivations. This would lead to a continued focus on the organization rather than the people within it to sustain change. This is, in my view, much harder and less rewarding work than helping the people in a system find their own meaningful reasons for contributing toward a goal.

Question 7: What are the new tools in the toolbox that the behavioral manager may use that traditional change management does not possess?

In the interest of space, I’ll limit my answer to just three. Only one of these tools is truly new, but the other two are being used in new ways so I think that qualifies them.

First, behavioral managers review the existing literature to identify potentially successful interventions. Scanning the existing body of knowledge accelerates the learning process and reduces risk by helping to discard ideas with a low likelihood of success and narrow the focus for research and design in the current efforts. Although the behavior change field suffers from the “file drawer problem” of a bias toward publishing positive results over null results, there are often clues in studies about how not to approach a change effort that can be extremely valuable.

The second tool being applied by behavioral managers in new ways is motivational psychology — especially based in work from self-determination theory. Motivational psychology helps the behavioral manager go beyond traditional thinking that incentives alone will drive behavior. In the last several decades, it’s been applied to the design of behavior change interventions in health, finance, education, and work, making it increasingly easy for the behavioral manager to glean tips for their own intervention design. Motivational psychology also provides the means to design interventions for sustained behavior change, because it tends not to rely on externally provided levers as heavily as other change management approaches.

The third tool was developed in the 2010s at the University College of London: The Behaviour Change Wheel and COM-B. This tool can be used both to gather evidence and to make decisions about how to proceed based on what the behavioral manager learns. COM-B would have a behavioral manager clarifying the behaviors of interest for an intervention, and then researching whether actors have sufficient capability, motivation, and opportunity to perform them (the words capability, opportunity, motivation, and behavior make up the acronym COM-B). Once barriers to the behavior have been identified, the Behaviour Change Wheel organizes intervention types by their likelihood of success to address each barrier. The model also includes a robust taxonomy of behavior change techniques that the behavioral manager can use to generate ideas for their own intervention design. This toolkit helps behavioral managers structure their approach on the basis of prior empirical findings.

Question 8: What is an intervention in behavioral terms?

I use the term “intervention” very broadly to mean anything that is intended to change people’s behavior. Interventions can take the form of programs, marketing campaigns, digital apps, websites, coaching protocols, educational curricula, etc.

A well-done intervention is based on a theory of change. It targets a specific behavior or set of behaviors and includes behavior change techniques selected for their evidence-based likelihood of influencing the target behaviors. Ideally, it is deployed with an outcomes research plan in place to assess its efficacy and enable the behavioral manager to make adjustments, pursue alternatives, and report successes.

Question 9: What does a day in a behavioral manager’s day look like, on an hour to hour basis?

This is an impossible question to answer! One of the exciting things about working in behavior change is the variety we experience.

For me, the shape of my days depends very much on what stage of a project I am in.

In the early phases, what we call diagnosis, I might be designing a research plan or interviewing research respondents. This is also a stage where I’ll spend time reading and compiling a literature review. When we are in our prescription phase, I’ll work with other members of my team to create design ideas based on what we’ve learned.

This phase includes a lot of collaborative discussions as well as individual time to create artifacts to share and critique. In execution, we work with designers and developers to take our best ideas and make them real, whether it’s building an app or creating training materials. If I can’t contribute directly to the development, I’m providing regular review to ensure fidelity to the behavior change blueprint. Finally, we launch our interventions into the world and monitor them for efficacy in our evaluation phase. This might include collecting data directly from the intervention, or we may need to launch other research like surveys to understand if the intervention is having its intended effects.

In addition to my days being different depending on the project stage, I’m usually working on more than one project at a time (although rarely more than two, since they require focus). So I might be conducting formative research for one project while generating solution ideas for another.

One constant in the behavioral manager’s day is communicating clearly to others about behavior change and its importance. Organizational leadership, people participating in research, external stakeholders, and potential customers are among the groups who may want and need behavior change science explained in a way that feels relevant and interesting. So behavioral managers are translators and communicators, too.

Question 10: What is at stake when we talk about impact in behavioral change management?

When we talk about impact in behavioral change management, we are talking about linking together individual and collective needs and outcomes. The work of change comes from the bottom — the people — and the effects of their efforts ripple upwards through the layers of the organization and translate to cultural shifts and measurable results. Ideally, these results benefit both the organization and the people within it; spending resources in a more efficient or effective way, seeing fewer negative incidents, and performing better financially.

Question 11: Why should a corporate organization hire a behavioral manager for their change projects?

If an organization is serious about creating sustained change, then a behavioral manager will help craft interventions to do that. Research suggests that the return on investment (ROI) for behaviorally crafted interventions may take time to manifest, but is significant when it does. For example, one retrospective study showed that when an American health plan began to promote a suite of personalized digital health interventions to its members, health care costs for the people who participated significantly declined relative to costs for a matched sample of people who did not participate.

The cost differences took about a year to become evident in the data and represented an almost $10 return for every dollar spent on the program (). (In full disclosure, I worked on the program development team, which is why I can confidently speak to its basis in behavioral science).

I think that the way a behavioral manager approaches their work also gives them an advantage in being effective within a corporate environment. People have an impression of corporations as large impersonal machines, but the nature of behavioral management is to work to understand individuals within the system. Behavioral management done well is respectful of the people doing the behavior and what matters to them; people appreciate feeling seen and acknowledged. I’m hopeful that people will find the behavioral manager approach refreshing and be more excited about working with people in that role to make change.

Question 12: In the hunt of reaching impact in terms of behavioral how could the behavioral manager apply the idea of decision-points as a tool to create the change?

The behavior change design process has several natural transition points that can be leveraged to make critical project decisions. One of our critical tools is an outcomes logic map, which is created very early in the process to specify success metrics at each stage of the product lifecycle. This document can be used to guide intervention development and also serves as a blueprint for when to incorporate decision points once an intervention is being used.

Once the logic map has been created, it should also be consulted on a regular basis to see whether the intervention is performing as expected. If the results are tracking behind what the map outlines, then additional research may be needed to identify what is not working and iterate on the intervention to make it more effective.

It’s helpful if the behavior change design team tries to anticipate potential points of failure in advance and create plans to address them.

This will equip them to react more quickly at a decision point when the data suggests changes need to be made. For example, if the data shows that users for a digital intervention aren’t returning after the first use, the project team should have an idea of the type of research they’ll need to conduct to understand why not so they can quickly investigate.

Interestingly, the idea of decision points can be applied inward to individual or team goals. It combines the behavior change techniques of action planning and commitment. Behavioral managers can work with their teams to define the milestones that might trigger a decision point — whether it’s the passage of time, a specific event happening, or data passing a defined threshold — and the decision to be made. These sorts of defined decision points put a structure and logic around changing behaviors that has been shown to help people comply.’

Question 13: What is the best way to scale behavioral change — and create lasting impact in terms of new habits?

The proliferation of digital technology is a gift to behavior change, as it allows us to scale interventions at a relatively low cost. While there are some behavior change challenges that may always require the human touch, we can build digital interventions that handle much of the process. Sometimes, digital interventions are a superior choice to higher-touch alternatives.

There are lots of reasons why I believe digital technology is excellent for scaling behavioral change, but personalization is one of the most important. Technology allows for the rapid personalization of interventions. Research has shown that personalizing behavior change for an individual helps get them interested and results in more and longer-lasting changes. A digital tool can intake large amounts of information about a person and produce sophisticated and relevant coaching or education that fits their specific needs and interests.

It would take much longer for a human being to do the same amount of personalization for the same number of people. Digital technology also has features that are uniquely suited to help people develop, strengthen, and break habits. Remember that habits include three components: A cue, a behavioral response, and a reward. Digital interventions can be programmed to provide cues for behaviors through alerts or push messaging. These can be triggered by geolocation, time of day, or any number of data points. The behavior itself can be coached or monitored. And then the digital intervention can provide a reward (above and beyond any intrinsic reward from the behavior) in the form of feedback and a new call to action. The fact that so many people already have a set of entrenched habits around their use of digital technology offers an opportunity for habit laddering techniques — pairing new, desired behaviors with existing habits.

Question 14: What would Kotter have done if he had a behavioral change tool?

First, a caveat: Kotter is so prolific that I can’t pretend to be an expert in all of his work. My answer here is based on professional familiarity with his work. Kotter is still actively working and publishing, and his recent work has more of a psychological flavor to it. I’d like to think he’d be open to perhaps collaborating with a behavioral manager to examine organizational change through the management and employee lenses simultaneously.

It seems to me that Kotter often approaches his work from the perspective of the managers or leaders in an organization (top-down view of change). Within this work, he considers the needs of employees as an input. Behavior change managers would approach their work from the perspective of the employees in an organization (bottom-up view of change), and consider the needs of managers or leaders as an input.

Thinking just of Kotter’s classic 8-step change model, I see the biggest potential benefit of incorporating a behavioral manager perspective being the consideration of employee motivation. The model puts so much onus on the leader to drive change; psychological science can offer more tools to enlist employees as collaborators in the change effort.

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