Behavior Analysts: Moving from Tactical to Strategic Influence Inside Corporations

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Guest Author: Ryan Walz, M.B.A., M.S.

Ryan Walz holds a BS in Psychology from the University of Florida, an MBA, and an MS in Applied Behavior Analysis and Organizational Behavior Management from Florida Institute of Technology. He is also a holder of a Lean Six Sigma Black Belt certification. He has developed internal sales processes, improved market research capabilities, designed leadership development workshops, and contributed to the formation of strategic initiatives.

Ryan is writing to all of us seeking to work inside organizations and what he wishes for those who teach students the skills required in the field of OBM. He outlines important ways the formal learning experiences could be of more value, including more internships and post-doctoral training inside business entities. He also suggests we provide ways to link to other disciplines in our graduate training to understand particularly the language of business regarding financial and operational requirements. Ryan is interested in bringing behavior analysts to the table as true partners with those at many levels in a corporation, translating strategic initiatives to impact performance in obtaining a company’s desired goals.

My rationale for writing this blog
Following a master’s degree in behavior analysis, I’ve ventured beyond the traditional boundaries of the discipline, seeking to understand the dynamic relationship between behavior science and the corporate world. In part, this blog points out a few things I wish were more often taught in preparation for entering into OBM or directly into business as behavior analysts. While I have yet to engage fully in the work I want to do, addressing corporate design from a behavioral framework, I have delved into the strategies employed by others who have succeeded in the world of business as OBM practitioners, including the early pioneers in behavior analysis who entered the world of business without particular tools. They took what they knew about the science of behavior and influenced corporate leadership through the insights and methods they developed, often side-by-side with their clients. As I reflect on my readings post-graduation, current experiences, and the guidance imparted by my mentors, I would like to share some perspectives and tools that I have come to see as instrumental for us all, including what we can learn from outside our field.

I’ll start with a quote by someone outside our field but so key to our understanding of the issues facing corporations, W. Edwards Deming, initiating the quality revolution in America after WWII, said:

“If you do not know how to ask the right question, you discover nothing.”


The Need for a Strategic Repertoire

In the broad landscape of organizational behavior and business development, strategy and implementation emerge as the dual pillars upholding the foundation, the workplace environment, essential to a successful enterprise. If strategy equates to designing the right outcomes to achieve business success, then tactics in well-designed implementation are about behaving in ways that accomplish those right ends.

A hand picking up a chess piece with several other pieces on the chessboard.This subtle distinction carries immense significance. For professionals trained in behavior analysis, that training focuses on bringing the science of behavior to life in daily work activities.  Often, a simple yet powerful 5-step model provides a structure by which to approach change: pinpointing both behavior and results desired by the client, measuring effects, consequating actions, providing feedback, and evaluating impact.  Behavior is the behavior analyst’s familiar territory. Those trained in behavior analysis are rarely trained to ensure that the behavior at the individual level is seen as part of the accomplishment of a company’s business strategy.  Nor are they trained in evaluating a strategic plan to assess those core elements where a change in conditions and actions may be needed to ensure success.

To influence organizational strategy, it’s crucial not only to have a seat at the table but also to communicate fluently in the language of specific businesses and their senior leadership. Becoming fluent in concepts in behavior analysis and relating them to the business environment is an asset. You do not necessarily have to use behavioral language and you may often not want to, but you must have a firm grasp of the concepts and principles of our field.  Certainly, I still have much to learn. These principles teach us how to observe and translate the behavior patterns and contingencies that operate in the environment. They provide methods to test assumptions and solutions.

When you hear about the competing contingencies impacting a business, consider what you know about the conditions maintaining such patterns from the start of your engagement.  Being prepared to help, as described in discussions I have had with those who have done such work, means taking a functionally analytic approach and applying what you are learning to what the corporation needs to do differently to address its problems.

Learn, in particular, to listen before you assume you know the answer. We are all too often certain we know the answers even before we begin. That kind of certainty may maintain our reputation as tacticians, but not as strategists. From the extraordinary work that earlier practitioners have done, I know we have much to offer as strategy designers and implementers.

There are many concepts to master, and as students, we are not necessarily thoroughly taught them in programs that typically and primarily focus on clinical applications. Find yourself an experienced OBM guide and learn how to apply such things as the matching law, Gilbert’s PIP, pay for performance, resurgence, problem-solving fallacies, how words written and spoken shape and maintain non-productive patterns of behavior, the danger in our success blinding us to what we need to see,  signal detection theory and how it can help, and schedules of reinforcement in how behavior is strengthened by the conditions that surround it. We need to consider our skills in areas such as decision-making and problem-solving and our verbal behavior as it affects the dynamic interactions between ourselves and our clients. In a nutshell, not getting too content with what we think we know or how we think we show up–those are my key takeaway lessons.

Start to extract what you can from such principles and see how they might shape what you can offer to corporate members as you do your work in applying methods to get to the end goal. Leveraging academically rooted methods in language familiar to executives augments our influence during strategic development discussions. While our specialized expertise may provide initial entry into these conversations, the scope of our contributions means that we become comfortable with understanding strategy formulation and execution from a multi-disciplinary framework. Familiarity with widely recognized strategy frameworks that business leaders employ can help us clarify how our expertise adds value to what might be a widely divergent decision-making process from our own.

Our insights, rooted in evaluating contingencies in ways businesses often do not do, have the potential to add design elements early in the development of organizational strategy into the conditions that surround behaviors needed for success, especially for those who lead.

For example, building a behavioral blueprint, something we know a great deal about, highlights the importance of our competency beyond immediate tactical concerns to a broader strategic viewpoint congruent with C-suite expectations. Being part of how strategic approaches are designed enables us to be a party at the table, turning our specialized insights into actionable, sustainable organizational plans. Many skillful OBM experts in those early years would often take notes, offering to write content that would then be incorporated into components of a company’s strategic plan. Because these people were also skilled writers, a task many of us are not so thrilled to do, they won the trust by writing into the strategic plans and clear behavioral processes for pragmatic implementation.

The Value Stick Applied

Since the expertise of behavior analysts in organizations is still growing in both its depth and flexibility to address the constraints and opportunities to produce large-scale organizational impact, a strategic framework “tool” might help the newly included behavior analyst at the corporate table and provide some unity amongst practitioners. Such tools provide a common method of understanding what many executives have been taught to think about business and strategy.  With simplicity and utility for many business leaders, a modified “value stick” is a perfect place to begin in helping us as behavior analysts see where our skills might fit on issues of interest to them and how such a model might even help us engage in the persistent effort required to do this kind of work.

The image depicts the value stick that Harvard Business School Professor Felix Oberholzer-Gee created.
The Value Stick by Felix Oberholzer-Gee, Harvard Business School Professor.

The image to the left depicts the value stick that Harvard Business School Professor Felix Oberholzer-Gee created. It offers a holistic perspective on understanding industry value distribution among its myriad stakeholders. As a stick, it signifies the aggregate value an industry or organization generates and provides insight into how this value gets apportioned among entities like suppliers, customers, producers, and complements. In this case, value means worth, not a social good, although value may be partly derived from the social good. The value stick suggests that the essence of strategic positioning and value creation surpasses merely outshining competitors. Instead, it’s fundamentally about grasping and fine-tuning the value distribution among all stakeholders.

Looking deeper into this framework, one realizes that value distribution within many industries tends to be relatively static. However, value distribution can oscillate dynamically with industries transforming quickly and abruptly. Recognizing these nuances is essential for effective strategy formulation. Equally significant is acknowledging that the length of the value stick, representing the industry’s total possible value, isn’t constant. It expands or contracts from various factors, from technological breakthroughs and regulatory shifts to overarching macroeconomic dynamics. For instance, while the digital evolution augmented the tech sector’s value stick, it concurrently shrunk more conventional approaches.

Further complicating this landscape is the realization that the division of the value stick isn’t rigid; it’s subject to time and circumstance. Broadly enough, to encompass the transformation technologies introduced within several industries, the behavior analyst needs to consider where the primary benefactors and value are redistributed between suppliers, employees, the company, and the consumers.

Critical Metrics to Evaluate Strategic and Tactical Success

Looking at the value stick, Willingness to Pay (WTP), price, cost, or compensation, and Willingness to Sell (WTS) are critical metrics of tactical and strategic success. The difference between the WTP and the price calculates customer or consumer delight. The difference between the cost and WTS is supplier surplus and employee satisfaction.

Since this blog looks at applied behavior analysts as humans acting in organizations, the Willingness to Commit (WTC), a conversion from WTS, begins to get to how we show up. In addition, reviewing how we traditionally look at our engagements, we need to look at Willingness to Invest (WTI), a modification of WTP.

To increase the total available value, we can either increase the WTI, which focuses on the relationship between the field and our actions inside organizations or lower the WTC, the relationship between the implementation of behavior analysis and the essential asset in the field, the behavior analyst.

Increasing the behavior analysts’ WTI and, ultimately, the consumers’ view of the field, focus on providing what clients find valuable. Organizations frequently commit to frameworks and processes for how their organization should be run but fail to consider the human behavior components and wonder why they are seeing subpar results. As agents of deliberate and effective change, we provide the missing link between hope and the current state. More importantly, we are in a prime position to achieve results and rely on principles that promote well-being amongst employees to champion approaches that don’t rely on aversive control.

Preparing for Your Role

To have the influence we know we could bring for a company’s longer-term good, we need to look carefully at the training many students of behavior analysis are provided. Unfortunately, from my experience, what I can find from scarce writings or case studies about organizational change is not particularly exciting nor impressive to most “business-oriented” individuals in industry– or academia. Often some of our most astute behavior analysts view working in organizations as far removed from what we know, focusing on structural tools and faulty science, and most egregious of all, doing and saying things to remain in favor, often at the expense of principles–not the place for serious behavior analysis.

When on the job, we are rarely encouraged to raise issues, even ever so diplomatically that affect the organization’s direction or impact. All too often, our rigorous and important recommendations never reach the hands of someone who can bring our findings to those who lead or direct strategic and tactical integration. That seems to me not to be governed by our desire to retain a contract, but rather, it seems more about a lack of skills in how to present things in ways so that businesses take our analysis seriously.

The needs of industry outpace academia and peer-reviewed literature. It is no wonder, even as students when we do research of note, we find it hard to produce meaningful findings to share with our clients. It takes months for a study to be conducted and months to be published. We depend on professors to teach or inform students of new or additive ways to do our work for greater social and corporate-wide impact.

We are not practiced in the words needed at the top of a corporation to make our points understood for what they offer to the workplace. Many of our professors have little experience shaping organizational decision-making, which is certainly at times quite daunting. They are rarely invited to participate at a level of influence themselves. Promoting internships and practicums with business leaders is one way to help novice behavior analysts “learn by doing” at various levels of organizational influence.

We do not have the direct access many in business departments do, and our field is rather removed from knowing or partnering with business school colleagues. Such alliances could help the student. My current company is looking at offering funding to a few programs where students in behavior analysis and students from other disciplines come together to do meaningful research. The intent is to honor and share each discipline’s unique language and discover common or divergent ground. We need more such cross-disciplinary opportunities.

An approach to raise the Willingness to Invest is closing the time gap within our field to demonstrate results. Unfortunately, that is easier said than done. Relying on evidence-based published practice differs from how many Organizational Behavior Management groups promote their skills. They write for their audiences and rely on years of contract-based research to ground their work in a language that addresses what they can bring to the table. For recent students, this is not an alternative we are encouraged to do. I am hoping this blog might catch your eye about how we can establish “proof of concept” interest with clients.

We can explore businesses’ annual reports of what worked and what did not. We can work with behavior analysts inside companies to refine what we offer in addressing topics from our unique perspective. Again, internships and practicums or post-docs can help.

While we may still want to build our foundational reputation through peer-reviewed journals, we can write for industry journals to establish ourselves. At ABA Technologies, we are promoting the skills of very experienced behavior analysts to address problems of safety and vigilance for lone workers. Health management, staff retention, and other things we know how to do are being offered through conferences, workshops, articles, and blogs. We are working with industry experts as advisors to our program and to us as learners.

Another path to raising the Willingness to Invest would be less about time and more about the message and subject. Our focus on behavior may very well be a barrier to why we find difficulty in penetrating organizations. The “behavior analysts” methodology is our differentiator, but selling a methodology is challenging. The fads of industry and managerial practices are quickly adopted because of the promise of their impact. Lean Six Sigma promises to eliminate waste and improve quality. Agility promises flexibility when facing constant change. But what do we promise? Effectiveness? Who doesn’t promise that? If our elevator pitches rely on explicitly describing how we do things differently, we will most likely be met with a cruel “and” or “so what.” Our message must be built around the value being sought, and a clear path toward specific impacts.

We need the builders of the field and people of influence to help open doors. To lower the bar on Willingness to Commit or make the commitment a more reinforcing endeavor, a few areas are well within our grasp. The first directly links to and supports our skill to make people more willing to invest, being open to diversifying our knowledge base and challenging our highly maintained self-reinforcement cycles. Nothing is more reinforcing than seeing your efforts work but less reinforcing is the hard work to adapt and change effective methods to broaden new ways of defining and clarifying how we can work with others while maintaining our core principles. Today, we suffer a bit from the copycat syndrome of basing our work on the excellent work from yesteryear. In the timeline from when ABA was first applied in organizational settings to now, we see a swift “ordering” of what is OK to do and what is off limits. Rules of conduct should give us all pause beyond a simple guide.

Strictly based on my supposition based on the writings of this pioneering group, the practitioners in the field were quite experimental, going out to do things that they had not heard they could not do–and thus, they did them, opening up doors all the way to the tops of corporations. They entered and traveled around the world. They wrote about their methods, and from those writings, a kind of rule governance developed in the reader (or so I speculate) about how we might achieve success in such a wild and unknown world as that of business. We had very few experienced teachers in this novel area of OBM. Most practicing OBM experts who were most successful did not return to teaching but stayed in the field. Proper ways of involving the organization arose as rules of conduct for our newly turned out students This “ordering” appears to limit where we practice, the kind of interventions, topics, and industries we are suited for, to continue to achieve the results we have achieved. It appears we are growing rather content with remaining in those rule-driven lanes in our approaches to work, not starting fresh in what we see and hear in every environment we enter.

A prime example is our focus on feedback, a robust, low-cost, effective, and relatively easy intervention. We can see significant gains in performance from feedback alone, and because of this, we want to continue applying, altering, and understanding it. This is not meant to belittle or mock a valuable tool in our belt, but simply a word of caution. If a tool dominates the literature we build our field on, eventually, we may continue to be seen as technicians, not strategists.  A “feedback specialist” is a relatively tricky sell to businesses facing significant challenges.

Where do we go?

Tall skyscraper building, at night, with many office spaces and rooms with the lights turned on. I suggest we define ourselves as behavioral architects, finding the motivational factors in as many environmental conditions that will help make a company and its people accomplish their best. As our more comprehensive perspectives are brought into the field and embraced, new directions bifurcate and influence our research and provide new settings, problems, and businesses to pursue. Though not all points of view are recognized as having co-equal value, there is excellent value in both strategy development and the development of our field to understand the perspectives of engineers, HR professionals, project managers, business process analysts, and data analysts. If we can meet our customers’ needs at both a strategic and tactical level, the insights and applications of behavior analysis become more attractive.  We have powerful insights to offer.

The first few years and the first step into the field are crucial for those who want to make a career of applying ABA in organizational settings. Few would argue that current training prepares a behavior analysis to lead to significant organizational changes. Look outside the field to learn the language and expand the tool belt. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of just plain old noise out there, “stuff.” Some approaches are persuasive but bear little fruit. Others are effective yet are incredibly niche.

A mentor can help navigate the endless avenues one can travel down. With light guidance, a skillful mentor can set a new behavior analyst on a path likely to be met with reinforcement. The need is apparent and can be seen in many unofficial learning communities that have sprung up. Without a formal mentor or substantial community, individuals will seek guidance elsewhere. Online forums can be an excellent place for these communities, but without proper structure, oversight, or support, they can harm the rigorous challenges new learners face. Digging deep, learning new things and ways to practice, and working hard are part of what will be needed. Our current repertoire is not yet designed to prepare us for the work ahead.

The learning never stops in this work and a short list of a few readings that I have found helpful is attached.

Recommendations for Your Library

  • Human Competence by Thomas Gilbert
  • Better, Simpler Strategy: A Value-Based Guide to Exceptional Performance by Felix Oberholzer-Gee
  • Out of the Crisis and The Essential Deming: Leadership Principles from the Father of Quality by W. Edwards Demming
  • Pay for Profit: Designing An Organization-Wide Performance-Based Compensation System by William Abernathy
  • Articles published in the Harvard Business Review, MIT Sloan Management Review, McKinsey and Company Insights, and the Economist
  • The Innovator’s Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail by Clayton M. Christensen

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