What Businesses Can Learn from Moms with Toddlers

The little two year old was in the warming pool walking around on the ledge used by adults for sitting down in the water. Mom was right beside her showing her the best path to walk, letting her venture on her own, but also telling her repeatedly not to step too close to the edge or she’d fall in the deeper part of the pool which was clearly too deep for the little toddler. Despite Mom’s instructions and repeated warnings, the little girl stepped too close, lost her footing and down she went. Mom was right there to pull her up, of course. The little girl sputtered and cried but was just fine. And her path around the pool changed.

I’ve written about the ABCs of behavior before. It’s an important concept; one that can fundamentally change the approach to change management and turn around the abysmal failure rate for most major strategic initiatives (see Businesses & Consultants Get an F). The key is to focus on behavioral consequences. Most businesses spend 80% of change management efforts on antecedents. Antecedents are those things that are done in an attempt to promote or trigger the desired behaviors: like the Mom telling, instructing, and training the two year old to walk away from the edge. But antecedents, including huge training budgets, drive only 20% of change (see Switchpoints by Ned Morse, etal).

The same little girl’s mother does a great job of praising and rewarding her little child every time she accomplishes something as simple as getting dressed herself or picking up her toys and putting them away. Although Mom tells (antecedent) her child to get dressed or pick things up, it’s the praise and rewards the toddler receives afterwards (consequences) that drives the behavior.

Likewise, behavioral consequences (good or bad) drive 80% of change in business. Yet businesses only spend 20% of their time on behavioral consequences. It’s the shift from a focus on antecedents to a focus on consequences that can reduce the failure rate of major strategic initiatives. There’s really nothing like an unintended slip into the deep part of the pool to change your behavior.