I recently went to a three-day session on change management by a highly respected nationally known organization All of their materials emphasized reinforcement as one of three key steps to success (the other two, not surprisingly, are plan and execute, with a lot behind each phase).
I loved the emphasis on reinforcement. I think that’s where so many initiatives fail, it’s where you either get the value of all that work and planning or you don’t. I couldn’t wait to hear their thoughts about putting plans into practice, frequent check-ins and creative varied ways to maintain commitments, build momentum, etc…
I couldn’t wait, but I did. Through the first day. And the second. And the third morning. And for an hour after lunch. At this point conversations at breaks were focused on the weather in Chicago and how long it would take an Uber to get to the airport. I wasn’t flying out, so I was free to wonder what had happened to reinforcement.
Finally, 20 minutes before the end of the three-day session, we got there. Twenty minutes. On a topic that is fully one-third of the model and the ultimate determinant of sustained success. This is a training that happens many times a year all over the country. They have had years to perfect the format. And still reinforcement got short shrift. By the experts. In a demonstration of how to do it right.
This really struck me – not as a failing on their part (notice I am not naming the organization – that’s not my point here) but as a clear example of why reinforcement is so so hard.
In many ways planning is the easy part. Or at least the easier part. In the planning stage there is energy and focus and momentum and time set aside. By the time you get to reinforcement you’re rushed. You’re tired. You’re trying to change your metaphorical flight so you don’t get metaphorically grounded in Chicago. In other words, you’ve moved on.
But here’s the problem with that dynamic. It doesn’t matter how intense your commitment was on Friday at the end of an energizing unifying planning session. What matters is what you do on Monday morning. And not just what you do, but what your team sees you do, and then what they do too.
Let’s go back to the nationally recognized organization and their training. They actually did a great job of modeling reinforcement. There was an email in my inbox the next day. A hand-written note from the instructor two weeks later. And we wrote postcards to ourselves that I will be receiving in 60 and 90 days. Yet in the classroom it still got swept away by the focus on earlier stages.
It’s so easy to lose sight of the need for reinforcement. So how can we do better?
I’m struggling with this myself as I try to build time for meditation and reflection into my new schedule. I know that when I do make time for these practices, I’m better at my life and my work. I am committed to making this change. But… Lots of people suggest first thing in the morning. I think those people must have bigger houses and/or quieter kids? People also suggest the same time and place every day. My schedule is different every day. I’m 0-for-2.
After several weeks of trying with limited success, I did put a reminder in my schedule for the same time every day. This at least guarantees that I see the reminder every day, and I make a decision to do the practice or to do something else. Plus my coach asks about this every time we talk. I can report that I am not yet at a consistent daily practice, but I am doing it more days than not, which is progress.
All of this suggests three keys to effective reinforcement. The first is that one size fits one – its worth taking the time to come up with techniques that really work for you or your team or your organization. The second is that the reminders are an invitation to make a decision – is this thing important to me? What am I choosing instead, and is that really more important? Changes are choices, and priorities are defined by being more important, and more worthy of your time – than the million other things calling ofr your attention. And finally, how can we hold ourselves, and each other, accountable for living the changes to which we’ve committed?
Change isn’t one big choice, it’s a thousand small ones. In each moment we get to pick the new behavior over the old one, to spend time on the priority rather than the fire drill. Or not to. Reinforcement is what helps us make the choice to change 1000 times in a row. And by the way, time for reflection helps with that commitment too. So set a reminder on your calendar, or find an alternative that works for you and give it a try!