Emerging Technologies

How behavioural experiments boost sustainable leadership

Diverse private school classmates are excited as foam overflows from beaker during chemistry experiment, symbolizing behavioural experiments.

Behavioural experiments create bonds and boost businesses sustainability score. Image: Getty Images

Mariah Levin
Executive Director, beVisioneers: The Mercedes Benz Fellowship
Cyrus Suntook
Strategy Senior Manager, Responsible Leadership Fellow, Accenture
Megha Thakker
Experience Strategy Consultant, Responsible Leadership Fellow, Accenture
Emily Barrett
Leadership & Culture Specialist, Responsible Leadership Fellow, Accenture
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Behavioural Sciences

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  • Behavioural experiments give leaders tangible actions to embed responsible and sustainable behaviours within their organisations.
  • Through behavioural experimentation, organizations can de-risk change and fully unlock human potential.
  • Leadership experiments with 10 Young Global Leaders show that organizations that embrace iterative change significantly boost their sustainability score.

In our recently published research on Shaping the Sustainable Organization, Accenture and the World Economic Forum outlined what leaders need to put in place to embed the DNA required for a sustainable and equitable future. The next step is to apply this framework to reality, using behavioural science to activate and embed the mindsets and habits within leaders and their teams.

The Five Elements Model: Responsible leadership for a sustainable and equitable world
The Five Elements Model: Responsible leadership for a sustainable and equitable world. Image: Accenture

We worked over three months with a select cohort of 10 Young Global Leaders (YGLs), keen on designing behavioural experiments to embed responsible and sustainable leadership practices within their respective organizations. The Young Global Leaders programme is a World Economic Forum accelerator for a dynamic community of exceptional people with the vision, courage, and influence to drive positive change in the world.

The project was part of the Responsible Leadership programme – a multi-year collaboration between Accenture and the Forum's YGL and Global Shaper communities.

Young Global Leaders who participated in the pilot initiative to embed responsible and sustainable behaviours.
Young Global Leaders who participated in the pilot initiative to embed responsible an sustainable behaviours. Image: Accenture

What are behavioural experiments?

Behavioural experimentation is an approach to scale and sustain innovation through low-risk, high-impact interventions. It allows organizations to transform their culture using experimentation to de-risk change and fully unlock human potential.

Our approach is based on a simple, yet fundamental truth: behaviour change is driven by beliefs and beliefs are shaped by experiences. Rather than spending months diagnosing and talking about how to change culture, we equip leaders with practical tools to deliver short, sharp, measurable experiments around new ways of working.

By being explicit about the behaviours leaders seek to modify, they can create a culture of continuous improvement and creativity. These experiments deliver tangible changes and create an enviable impact across organizations in a matter of months.

The responsible leadership behaviour change journey was a joint endeavour. Alongside our 10 YGLs, we partnered with five behavioural change experts – Tinna Nielsen, Joe Hildebrand, Lauren Kelly, April Durrett and Simon Hayward – leveraging their thought leadership and methodologies to embed sustainable behaviour change.

This journey involved three phases:

1. Diagnose:

Using Accenture's Sustainable Organisation Diagnostic, each YGL was given a sustainability score, which measured the maturity of their organization's responsible infrastructure. The report also identified leadership strengths and challenge areas, forming a foundation for YGLs' behavioural experiments.

2. Design:

Over a series of two-week sprints, each YGL would work with an innovation coach to design bold, quick, measurable experiments to activate the target behaviours.

3. Develop:

After multiple iterations, the YGLs regrouped to share learnings and take steps to sustain and scale the impact from their behavioural experiments. Each YGL was given a "Leading for Responsible Impact" toolkit, providing practical steps for continuing their behaviour change journey.

Behavioural experiments require consistency and commitment over a sprint to maximize learning and catalyze change. While access to specific coaching is helpful, once you identify the cultural change you seek, you can create behaviour experiments by adapting the "diagnose," "design" and "develop" steps on your own.

A template to help you design your first behavioural experiment
A template to help you design your first behavioural experiment. Image: Accenture

Being bold with behaviour change

"Behavioural change inside an organization is really hard, especially when you are in a high-pressure fast-moving start-up environment. The behavioural experiment experience gave the ability to quickly try and learn from experiments leading to finding a more sustainable outcome," says Arvind Satyam, Chief Commercial Officer at Pano and YGL cohort of 2021.

A leadership priority for Arvind was to create a safe space for his team to make mistakes, introspect and share their problems with each other. To enable these behaviours of "listening to understand, rather than listening to solve," Arvind experimented with dedicating the first 20 minutes of a weekly call for the team to each share a problem they are facing.

By week three of this experiment, 100% of the team had shared at least one problem, moving beyond tactical questions to thinking about broader challenges. To sustain and scale this initiative, Arvind identified other leaders to role model behaviours of a "risk ally," and host similar problem-solving sessions to foster more creative, compassionate and open teams.

Describing the impact of these experiments, Arvind stated that "there was greater awareness within the team of our collective strengths as a result of learning more about each other's problems."

Similarly, Susana Sierra, Executive Director at BH Compliance and YGL cohort of 2020, had the challenge of embedding trust and empathy in her team to build a more collaborative organization.

Behavioural change inside an organization is really hard ...the behavioural experiment experience gave the ability to quickly try and learn from experiments leading to more sustainable outcomes.

Arvind Satyam, Chief Commercial Officer, Pano, and YGL cohort of 2021

To embed these behaviours, Susana experimented with playful "weekend challenges" for her team, encouraging everyone to set fun tasks to try over the weekend and share their experiences on Monday mornings. For example, share a photo of something meaningful to them or cook something with a purple ingredient.

This bite-sized intervention helped BH Compliance build trust within the team and connect on a personal level. At a time when remote working and Zoom calls felt very transactional, testing behavioural experiments let Susana embed empathy, vulnerability and trust in her team, describing it as "a very good experience with great results in a short time period."

Experimenting with playful challenges every week led to a 100% increase in team engagement and a 30% increase in BH Compliance's sustainability score.

Behavioural experiments de-risks change and enables organisations to fail fast.
Behavioural experiments de-risks change and enable organizations to fail fast. Image: Accenture

The beauty of behavioural experiments is that even when your experiment "fails," you learn more about your organization and build on those learnings to ultimately find a solution that works for your team.

Participants described their experience of the initiative as extremely valuable and an insightful way to highlight pain points that existed in the company. Indeed, reflecting on her experience with behavioural experiments, Nino Zambakhidze, Chairwoman of the Georgian Farmers Association (GFA) and YGL cohort of 2017, stated that her "only regret was not doing something similar sooner." Adopting an experimental approach to culture change increased the GFA's maturity of responsible business practices by over 15%.

If you are interested in trying a new approach to behaviour change, you can find out more in this three-part series on experimentation to unlock your organization's potential. Let's #KeepExperimenting.

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