When it comes to behavior change, should you be fixing issues or trying to replicate success? Find out in this Q&A with Dr Mark Houghton.

Typically, when it comes to leading change, people tend to look at the underperformers and find a way to bring them up to par. However, that isn't the approach that Dr Mark Houghton takes; he prefers to look at the exceptional performers and find out how to replicate their success. 

Mark is the founder of i-Performance, a company that helps people develop mental models that enable exceptional performance. The solutions he comes up with never seem complex, they’re often counter-intuitive, and just as often really simple. But they have a disproportionate impact on the outcome. 

Cognician’s CEO, Patrick Kayton chatted to him to find out more about his way of looking at change—one that is different from many other change practitioners out there.

The below is an excerpt of their conversation on Cognician’s new podcast, Quest for Change.

Question 1: I'm used to seeing clients say, "We've got something that's broken in our company. We're going to diagnose why, and then we're going to fix it." What do you see that is potentially problematic with that approach?

Two things, really. Firstly, doing the opposite of what's broken is very rarely the right solution. In fact, in our experience, it's never the right solution. The example we always use with clients is if you want to figure out how to be happy, then don't go and study depression.

But more importantly, there's the experience of being on the receiving end of that. You think about the psychology of being asked "How are you screwing up?" versus the way we approach things, which is "How are you when you are at your best?".

Decade after decade, people go through their career with a consultant coming in and saying, "You're making a mess of this. How do we fix you?". It's a completely different experience going, "Those instances when you're at your best, what are you doing?".

[The way we should approach it] can be very simple, in some cases even just switching a phrase around. Instead of calling it 'Performance and Development', changing it around to 'Development for Performance' can make a big difference. That way, you can start your end of year conversation with these questions: 

  • What did you learn in the last year?
  • What did that enable?
  • What are you going to learn next year?
  • What more is that going to enable?

This shift in phrasing makes people think about what they have actually learnt, instead of trying to prove that they haven't got a gap in learning.

It's a subtle change, but it's a massive change in terms of psychology. It encourages what you do want, which is learning, and not what you don't want, which is false confidence.

Question 2:
What's the one idea you wish everyone knew about?

Be curious about positive variation. Everyone always gets really curious about negative variation; so you set a sales target of 200 and you get 150. Immediately you ask, "What went wrong?" 

But if you set a sales target of 200 and you get 250, you simply say, "That went great" and no more. [You should be saying], "There's something we did that caused a result we didn't expect—what is that?"

There's real value in that positive variation, but nobody gets excited about that. The type of questions you're asking are reverse engineered from what happened. You're trying to answer why the clients bought an extra 50 units. What was triggered in their mind from what the company did? Ninety percent of the time, it is something the company did incidentally and didn't think was important, and therefore, they might not replicate next time.

Some people think, "Oh, well it must be because the product was great", but it wasn't. It was wording or a slight triggering in the marketing materials, or perhaps it was because a certain salesperson was working on it and they do things in a slightly different way.

When the cause is a person, the assumption is that they have a gift and there is no way of figuring that out—you're just lucky to have one of those gifted or talented people. Generally, people don't try to replicate success like that, but they do try and 'fix' all the people who aren't performing well. They don't assume that you can learn from the talented because they think it's a case of 'You either have it or you don't'.

We don't think it's possible to learn from that, so much. 

Question 3: What does the expert modeling process look like?

The important thing for us is that a lot of clients come to us and ask us to model a capability, and we'll say "No". We always start with the results they want to replicate, but even in that you need to be precise: 

  • Is it absolute sales? 
  • Is it repeat sales?
  • Is it share of voice?

We need to understand what 'good' looks like, but from a hard, tangible point of view.  When you look at the calculation of ROI; if you can show the outliers and ask 'what's their level of performance'? And it can be 400-500% higher than the average. I think the lowest we've seen was about 30% compared to the average. That's a gap that's available to close. But it's also important in terms of who we want to identify as exemplars. We're not looking for someone's opinion of who they like—it's about who is getting results.

Then we ask the clients to show us the most diverse group of people that are getting those results. This kind of messes with some of the clients heads because surely they should all look the same, but they don't. And that's one of the biggest assumptions that we challenge.

From there, we do the expert modeling. It involves watching the diverse group of achievers do what they do and then a two-hour cognitive interview—this is a video interview where we explore them at their best. Then it's about two and a half days of analysis per interview. [The interviews] are transcribed and gone through in a lot of detail, where we look at gestures, language, structure, patterns etc.

Depending on the size of the organization, we need about seven or eight people to model, and it's what's common across those people that becomes the expert model.


About the Expert: Dr Mark Houghton is the founder of i-Performance and co-developer of Expert Modeling methodology. He is a cognitive psychologist with real-world leadership experience and a background in organisational change and development. His passion is to explore the embodied minds and contexts of brilliant people, the outliers, and then enable others to experience the expansive possibilities that result from adopting similar ways of perceiving, thinking, feeling, and thus behaving.