Innovation is About Behavior Change

Innovation is about behavior change


Everywhere we turn, we hear about innovation. That’s because “the act of introducing something new” commands attention – it’s in our DNA to notice a change in patterns. In this literal sense, innovation is about survival. In business, innovation is necessary for growth and relevance.

But how much of innovation is actually new and how much is a new way of saying the same thing? 

The truth is that we hardly recognize innovation while it’s happening. Innovation is often a label we apply after the fact, when we have clear results and the new thing has become established. True innovation is about behavior change.

For this innovation issue, I thought it would be interesting to take a look at how to innovate using motivation, availability, and triggers – the three levers of behavior change based on practical application of the science of change by B.J. Fogg at Stanford.

Design for emotional appeal

The link between emotion and outcomes is one of the pillars of behavioral economics and one of the reasons why how people experience a product, service, or situation is key to understanding consequences to an organization.

When something affects us, it has an effect on our decisions.

Experience designer Hugh Dubberly says# the community has a relationship with its environment or context. A convention of sorts maintains that relationship.

When external pressure or internal change disturb that relationship, the original convention doesn’t fit anymore. It could be a number of things that happen – the context has changed, or the community has, or the convention.

Lack of fit causes stress and increases human effort. We notice lack of fit when it creates enough friction and enough pain. Perception of misfit almost simultaneously gives rise to proposals for change, for reframing. It creates the opportunity for insight.

Insights only move forward when shared, articulated, prototyped. Sharing is a test: Does the insight resonate with others? Proposals for change compete for attention. Most are ignored and fade away.

The changes that survive are by definition ones the community finds effective. They spread because they increase fit, because they create value.

Make things people want and need

We find an opportunity when we solve a problem, but we open a new opportunity by looking at things differently. The old saying, “if it's not broken it doesn't need fixing” may end up holding us back.

While innovation is not the same as invention, British inventor Trevor Boylis says, “The key to success is to risk unconventional thoughts. Convention is the enemy of progress. As long as you've got slightly more perception than the average wrapped loaf, you could invent something.” He invented the wind-up radio.

At design firm IDEO there's no substitute for testing ideas in market, asking for feedback, spending time talking with people on the ground and observing what they do. The most valuable people in organizations have a solid grounding in the social sciences—subjects like linguistics, cognitive psychology, and/or anthropology.  

To come up with new innovations, anthropologistsgo into the field.

An anthropologist wants to see how customers use and respond to products. Imagine a food map that includes visualizations and statistics, and also emotional descriptions of what people wished they had eaten. This kind of emotional data that reveals true intentions add a deep dimension to learning about the role of food in people's lives.

Or imagine bringing a video camera into the hospital room and, with permission, record everything that’s going on. Recording the comings and goings, the interruptions, the noise, the number of visitors allowed in beyond visiting hours, how staff bends rules, the impossibility of getting some rest is a great tool to help identify problems and see opportunities.

German philosopher Arthur Shopenhauer said that, “The task is… not so much to see what no one has yet seen; but to think what nobody has yet thought, about that which everybody sees.”

Make it easy for people to choose you

Adman Rory Sutherland says, “You can try to change people’s minds, but this is difficult. You can bribe people to change their behavior, but it’s expensive. Far simpler is to make the new behavior easy and enjoyable in and of itself.”

Product succeed when they’re simple to find and easy to understand.

If you want new action reduce complexity, erase tensions, and dispel myths. Simplify everything and you improve the customer experience. Making a product or service easier to find and buy is not very sexy work, but it’s important work.

Triggers are the last mile. Unless there’s a compelling, emotional reason to pick you, price promotions, a gift with purchase, or a chance to win are temporary bribes – taken in the moment and soon forgotten.

The problem with most loyalty programs is that they are constructed to reward the company – you do what we ask, we give you goodies – and the customer has to jump through hoops to get what he wants – e.g., redeem miles. They are so bad because they are focused on the product or service and not the larger context.

Say it like you mean it, because that’s what moves the needle

We have not given feelings the credit they deserve as motives, monitors and negotiators of human cultures. Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio says, “We are not thinking machines that feel; rather, we are feeling machines that think.”  

Emotion is important to uncovering why we do what we do, because much of our behavior comes from our subconscious mind. Emotion is thus a source of untapped insight in business.

When we're energized and enthusiastic about something, engagement is easy. But we don't get there with enthusiasm initiatives, or with incentives. Because when organizations implement them in the absence of cause-effect knowledge they end up rewarding the wrong behaviors.

Motivation, ease, and triggers are three levers we can pull to get a change in behavior.


It's important to remember that innovation demands tradeoffs.

For example, satellite radio offers a broader selection, but we lose free music; online grocery shopping gets us home delivery, but we lose the ability to pick the frershest foods personally. To be meaningful, the gains need to be greater than the losses.


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