How to Change Behaviour or Why Fish Don’t Ride Bicycles

It is a big challenge, maybe the big challenge.  How do you sustain change?  How do you get people to do something different, to change their behaviour?

Here is a model to frame the problem…

There are 5 stages people have to pass through before they will change their behaviour for good:

  1. Awareness
  2. Want
  3. Know How
  4. Capability
  5. Reinforcement

If you want to create change, you need to address all 5 stages.  Let me give you an example, imagine you want the world to take to their bicycles, what would you need to do?

Stage One:  Awareness

Do people know what want them to do?  Are they conscious of the issue?

Stone-age man wasn’t known for his bicycle riding ability.  He didn’t know what a bicycle was.  You can’t expect people to change unless they are aware of the change you want

Does everybody know?

Stage Two: Want

Do people want to change?

Children want to ride bicycles, old ladies aren’t so keen.  It is hard work getting old ladies to ride bicycles.  How are you going to persuade those old ladies to saddle up?

Are you going to use the carrot or the stick, or both?

Stage Three: Know How

Do they know how to ride a bicycle?  Have they been told to give themselves a big push off, to look ahead, not at the front wheel, to keep pedalling and not look at the front wheel and pedal faster, and not look at the front wheel (I have had this conversation recently, can you tell?)

Have you explained to everybody how to ride a bicycle?  Do they know how?

Stage Four: Capability

As the saying goes practice makes perfect, the only way to learn how to ride a bicycle is to have a go.

Reading a book, listening to an audio tape, watching a video, or being told by your father (no matter how brilliant) doesn’t really cut it

Have you given people time to practice, to develop the capability?

Stage Five: Reinforcement

How will you make sure people keep riding their bicycles?

In Holland and Denmark they have cycle paths everywhere, they are well maintained and generally flat.  If a car hits a bicycle, the law is on the side of the cyclist.  In the UK you take your chances in the bus lane

I don’t think I have ever seen anybody on a bike in the States, they don’t have foot paths let alone cycle paths.  Lance Armstrong is the only American who owns a bicycle (true fact, honest)

What could you do to reinforce the behaviour you want?  To make sure everybody continues to ride their bicycles

Five Stages

It doesn’t matter what you are trying to achieve.  Getting people to ride bicycles, recycle their rubbish, be polite to customers, you have to hit all 5 stages before they will change their behaviour.  You also have to hit them in the right order.  There is no point teaching your staff to use a new system if they don’t want to use the system

As for the fish?  I haven’t met one yet who knows what a bicycle is.  Other than that, it is the next big thing, you should invest now

Read another opinion

Image by Tim Pearce, Los Gatos



  1. Hi James,
    I like these five stages. Reminds me of my own experience when it comes to driving a car and how I went through all of these stages as part of learning to drive, passing my test and getting better as a driver with continuous practice and experience.


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