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Changing Behavior - Measure First, Change Next

Have you ever gone to the gym in January? If so, you’ve seen just how difficult it is to change behavior. Everyone has a New Year’s resolution to get into better shape or lose those extra holiday season pounds, so at first, the gym is very crowded. But within a few weeks, everyone gives up on trying to change, stops going, and the gym turns quiet again. Why? What does it take to actually change behavior in the long term, and why is it so important in business?

Business is the sum of all behavior. Once you realize this, you begin to understand the value of focusing on the right behavior. Behavior can help your business succeed, or cause it to fail. So how do you change it?

This article is published in AGILE NXT. Agile NXT is the magazine full of inspiration for professionals on the emerging Agile journey. Theme of #2: New Insights for Agile Performance Management.
Changing Behavior Measure First, Change Next Xebia AGILE NXT

Behavior is:

  • observable
  • measurable

Behavior is not:

  • values (open, curious)
  • generalities (team player)
  • attitude (dedicated)

When coaching companies on becoming more Agile, I use the ABC change model to help my clients change behavior:

A Antecedent—what triggers the behavior?
B Behavior—what’s being displayed?
Consequence—what happens after the behavior is displayed? Is it being reinforced?

Here’s how the technique works. Imagine you are driving to work and you see a posted speed limit sign of 50 k/ph. The sign is the antecedent (A). It might trigger a behavior (B) to speed up, slow down, or continue driving at 50 k/ph. Regardless of which behavior you display, there is no consequence, other than the speed you drive. But what if you are driving to work, and running late? The traffic sign tells you to drive 50 k/ph, but you’re driving 60 k/ph. The consequence of your behavior, driving above the speed limit, is that you will get to work faster. So, your displayed behavior gives you what you want—arriving to work on time. The consequence enforces you to drive faster than the posted speed limit. To correct your behavior, we could add more traffic signs, to make you more aware of the behavior you should display, but these would be antecedents—they might change your behavior, or not. Most likely, you’ll continue driving too fast, because it still gives you what you want—arriving to work on time.


Antecedents might influence behavior, but consequences directly impact it. So, if we want to change behavior, we have to look into its consequences. Suppose we added a speed camera to our imagined scenario. It changes the conse­quences. You may not alter your speed when you see the traffic sign, but as soon as you see the speed camera, you’ll probably slow down to avoid a fine.

Changing the consequence of the behavior alters it.

There are four types of conse­quences to consider when changing them: positive or negative reinforcement; and positive or negative punishment.

  • Reinforcement, positive:
    (giving a bonus)
  • Punishment, positive:
    (fines for bad behavior)
  • Reinforcement, negative:
    (do it, “or else”)
  • Punishment, negative:
    (taking away privileges)

So, in our driving example, the speed camera adds a positive punishment—a speeding ticket. But suppose the government gave you a GPS-tracker that recorded your speed and rewarded you with a tax benefit for every day that you kept to the speed limit—that would add a positive reinforcement. On the other hand, suppose you had a parking spot in front of your office that was taken away if you got too many speeding tickets—that would be a negative punishment. And if not obeying the posted speed limit resulted in the loss of your job, that would be an example of negative reinforcement.

Positive reinforcements work best.

So what can we do with this new found wisdom?
In attempting to become more Agile, many companies only change their antecedents, so behavior stays the same. If you want to change behavior, it’s critical that you first identify exactly what you want to change. Then, it’s important to get everyone on board who will be expected to exhibit the new behavior, otherwise, the change won’t work. Only the people involved can say whether or not the new behavior will be possible for them. Also, make sure the goals and behaviors are aligned. If everyone working within an Agile team has a different goal, then it’s counterproductive for the entire team.Once the behavior is established, quantify, measure, and reinforce it. Make sure that the reinforcement fits the person’s need, goal or desire, otherwise, it won’t work. For example, remember our January gym scenario? Well, if a person sticks with their resolution to “get into great shape” by working out continuously for twelve weeks, rewarding them with a certificate to an all-you-can-eat buffet might not be the best reinforcement. On the other hand, giving them a two-week beach vacation where they can show off their new body might just do the trick!

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