September 15, 2021

Our Review of “How to Change” by Katy Milkman

4 min read
By Peter Fotheringham

What do tennis pro Andre Agassi, ultra marathon runner Ray Zahab and finance CEO Omar Andaya have in common?

For one, they all feature in the latest book by Katy Milkman, economist, behavioural scientist and professor at The Wharton School of UPENN.

How to Change: The Science of Getting from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be” was published this year and, as with most books on the topic of behavioural change, was devoured by many at The Smarty Train. “How to Change” is an easy read of seven chapters, focusing on the key challenges to making and sustaining behaviour change. Katy focuses on the importance of starting change: setting the stage, getting the timing right, and laying the groundwork for new habits.

Throughout her book, Katy skilfully shares both exceptional moments and the day-to-day changes most readers may look to make, and the challenges they might face along the way. Her personal introspection creates empathy between her and the reader, while case studies from her own life are highly relatable.

We love this book because it discusses challenges we all face in the world of talent, and supports much of what we do here at TST: consider the audience, identify and frame problems, design solutions that inspire change and make change last. And, there were a few lessons that apply beyond just individual behaviour change to changing behaviours in organisations.

Here are our top three takeaways, and how they might help us to start thinking differently here in the world of talent:

1. We all experience moments where we feel the need for change

Katy uses stories to good effect throughout her book. She starts with Andre Agassi, the in(famous) ‘bad boy’ of Tennis who thrilled fans in the early 90s before falling from grace and the league table of the sport after his No.1 ranking in 1995. A two-year downward spiral saw Agassi lose his coach, his sponsorship, and his marriage. He clearly realised a need for change.

For many of us, change cues are more subtle than those Agassi faced. But we feel the need to change all the same. Even amid success, as Google experienced in 2013, there are signs that change is needed: in Google’s case, while profits soared, employee wellbeing was crashing. Google saw it needed to inspire and entrench new ways of working, and they turned to behavioural science to inform their culture change.

The wave of hybrid working emerging is ripe for us to evaluate what we might need to change. What cues are you seeing?

2. Solutions that work “on average” fail to solve specific problems

Every problem is unique its own context. Be they individual problems or organisational ones. For example, a D&I challenge faced by one business will always be different from another’s. People, culture, strategy and environments are unique to each organisation. An average solution solves an average problem, but not a specific one.

Katy’s book reflects the importance of creating specific solutions. Her story of Ray Zahab plots the change of a man from an unhappy out-of-shape smoker to word class athlete who used specific solutions to change his life. Understanding what is specific to your needs (individual or organisational) is a critical step in solving a specific problem.

When you think of the specific problems you may be facing when it comes to change, how might you need to be more specific with your problem-solving?

3. Set the stage for moments of change

This may well be the quote of the book: “If you want to change your behaviour or someone else’s, you’re at a huge advantage if you begin with a blank slate – a fresh start – and no old habits working against you”.

Katy’s book is directed to the individual, but its findings holds true for large corporations and SMEs. Change happens best when you begin afresh, in a space without expectations, conventions or established environments.

It happened for Green Bank, when CEO Omar Andaya realised his customers were at risk by failing to save for their futures. Using behavioural science approaches, he captured his clients attention, engaged them in clean-slate moments and built lasting change.

At a time when COVID is upturning a lot of what we took for granted in our day-to-day working, and is leading us to develop brand new ways of working, Katy’s point is prescient. From moving to remote working to now moving to hybrid working, we have a blank slate of sorts ahead of us.

How can we use the shift to hybrid working and ‘the late COVID period’ as a blank slate to set the stage for change, as individuals and organisations?

“If you want to change your behaviour or someone else’s, you’re at a huge advantage if you begin with a blank slate – a fresh start – and no old habits working against you.”

And that brings us to the answer to our opening question: What do tennis pro Andre Agassi, Ultra Marathon runner Ray Zahab and finance CEO Omar Andaya have in common?

Agassi, Zahab, and Andaya all needed a change. They all benefitted from solutions that met specific challenges and fit with their ways of living. And they all used blank-slate moments to embed that change. Read Katy’s great book “How to Change” to find out how you can also make change last, and how it can benefit you and your firm.

How to Change: The Science of Getting from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be
By Katy Milkman (@katy_milkman)
Vermillion Press, 272 Pages

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