How to Transform Markets and Society by Changing Human Behavior (for the Better)

Author: Udaiyan Jatar, Published: December 14, 2016

Visionary leaders want to transform the world, but many of the barriers seem insurmountable.

Was it merely luck or genius that enabled leaders like Gandhi and MLK, or some brands like Apple, Nike and Tesla, to overcome massive barriers and get the world to adopt their ideas/products?

We’ve found, from 15 years of research and practice, that there are replicable approaches that help “ordinary” individuals create transformative innovation. Deeply understanding behavior change is a first step.

Transformative Innovation Empowers Behavior Change

A CEO at a course on “Leading Transformative Innovation” we conducted last year at Oxford University asked how transformative innovation differs from incremental innovation.

Transformative innovation changes human behavior, incremental does not. For example, mobile phones empowered and transformed human behavior (and productivity). Believe it or not, getting adoption of mobile phones was hard in the 80s.

Trying to transform behavior is challenging, because most people don’t understand how human behavior actually changes.

Change Your Mental Model To Change the World

If you think behavior change equals action, you’re not alone. Almost everyone practices the “action model” of behavior change. I did too. The action model focuses on persuading someone to take an action—e.g. exercise, or buy a product.

The problem with this model is it mostly leads to temporary impact—someone exercises only once, or someone uses your brand only once, then switches to a competitor. This kind of public health initiative or brand marketing has a low ROI, and is rarely transformative.

One of the most impactful scientists I’ve collaborated with is Dr. James Prochaska. He’s among the top three clinical psychologists listed in the world today.

His new book, Changing to Thrive (available here, if you want to learn more) argues for a new mental model of behavior change.

Create Lasting Behavior Change in Stages

The action model addresses just the tip of the iceberg (an action) and doesn’t account for the profound changes in motivations that must occur before and after that action. So, how does market-transforming behavior change happen?

One of the tools that a transformative leader needs is mastering what Prochaska calls the “stages of behavior change.” Typically only 10 percent of the population even know about these stages, and of those, most don’t know how to get from one stage to the next.


Regardless of what a behavior change goal might be, the underlying stages of change remain the same. Take the example of “Bob” who’s been advised to exercise. Let’s say that there’s both a business goal (promote use of a fitness tracker) and a public health goal (promote exercise).

Stage 1: Precontemplation

Far from being ready to make a change, Bob doesn’t even realize he needs to change. Cardiovascular exercise? I don’t have time!

In this early stage, transformative leaders strive to understand Bob’s higher aspirations. This broader context helps reveal the emotional barriers to change, beyond the rationalization of “it’s too expensive,” or “I don’t have time.”

Stage 2: Contemplation

If Bob’s higher aspirations are triggered (say, by an inspiring ad) he is far more likely to become conscious of the need to change. I might improve my life, if I go for walks and track my activity.

Contemplation is characterised by deep doubt about whether the pros of changing outweigh the cons. When in doubt, people don’t act.

Bob’s doubts about acting (buying a tracker, the effort of exercising) need to be outweighed by his desire for the benefits (a better life). If this happens, Bob prepares for change.

Stage 3: Preparation

Bob begins to get invested in change: I’ll research the features of fitness trackers and find a trail.

Most brands and leaders don’t give this stage enough thought in their hurry to affect change. They are in “sell” mode, but Bob needs empathy. Transformative leaders help people prepare with information and motivation in a highly empathic manner.

I’ve found taking the longer route (creating a relationship through patience and empathy) is ultimately faster than taking short cuts (incentivize Bob with discounts) to achieve transformative innovation.

Stage 4: Action

Finally! What public health officials and marketing managers dream of: Bob buys a fitness tracker and he goes for a walk!

Having launched many products that achieved this stage, I know it isn’t enough to sustain business. More than 50 percent of people revert to old behaviors within 21 days. Ordinary brands get commoditized because people constantly switch based on price or the latest feature. Transformative brands foster enduring loyalty through the following stages.

Stage 5: Maintenance

Getting people to the maintenance stage is critical for abiding success. Prochaska considers that Bob is in this stage if he continues walking for at least six months, which he is more likely to do with emotional support.

The business goal is for Bob to become a repeat customer without bribing him with discounts. To achieve this we need to strengthen the relationship through each stage of behavior change. Sure, product quality must live up to it’s promise, too. But more importantly, the brand must play a therapeutic role in empowering Bob to use it to continue progress towards his aspirations.

Transformative brands create a consistently empowering experience through all consumer touch-points (advertising, customer service, etc.) To see this in practice, visit an Apple Store. When they get it right, Apple’s staff strive for empathy above efficiency.

Stage 6: Termination

This is the ultimate stage. Bob terminates his old, unhealthy habits and exercise becomes an ingrained habit. He becomes a fan of the tracker brand and promotes it to friends. Maybe he even gets its logo tattooed on his shoulder! This happens only when brands commit to cultivating a highly empathic relationship and product experience.

Brands like Apple, Nike and Harley-Davidson transcend their competitors not necessarily through product superiority, but by inspiring and empowering people to change behavior systemically. (If you want to learn about the “7 Disciplines for Creating Transcendent Brands” check out my TEDx talk or this resource.)


Bob can go back to a pre-action stage of behavior. Transformative leaders continue to motivate and inspire.

Next Article: Scaling Behavior Change

That’s the overview of behavior change at an individual level. To gain adoption of transformative innovation at a society/market level, we have to substantially change our own behavior of how we lead innovation.

So, Dream Massive, Start Tiny, and Scale Conscientiously. More on “scaling” next month.

Posted in: Innovation