At a client’s off-site meeting a few years ago, I gave a talk on how companies can bring about dramatic cultural change—the focus of my firm’s consulting work. At the end, a man quietly approached and asked, “Are you a friend of Bill’s?” Seeing my confused expression, he attempted a clarification: “Are you a friend of Bill W’s?” “Who’s Bill W?” I said. The man explained that Bill Wilson was the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous and that members use the question “Are you a friend of Bill’s?” to discreetly inquire about whether acquaintances are in AA. “I’m not,” I replied. “Why do you ask?” He said that the methods I’d described to lead change reminded him of the methods AA uses to help people stop drinking—so much so that he’d wondered if I was a 12-stepper myself. I thought it was an interesting exchange but gave it no further thought at the time.
Soon afterward a senior executive at another client told me that the process we’d used to coach his team had inspired him to confront his alcohol abuse—even though we hadn’t, of course, discussed addiction during the coaching. This made me curious. So over the past several years, my team and I studied a variety of addiction treatment programs. We examined the methods and success rates of traditional 12-step programs along with less conventional techniques, from the regimen depicted on the TV show The Biggest Loser to therapies for troubled youth and training protocols for orca whales. We approached the endeavor with skepticism—on the surface, change management and addiction treatment seem wholly dissimilar. Over time, however, we saw many parallels between how the two bodies of work leverage human nature to modify behavior. In the process, we discovered a provocative lens and language to help change managers better understand their mission and methods.
At the simplest level, the comparison is this: Organizations can’t change their culture unless individual employees change their behavior—and changing behavior is hard. Many change programs focus on providing strategies, technologies, and training. But often that’s not enough. When it comes to modifying deeply ingrained behavior, 12-step programs have a superior track record. They use incentives, celebration, peer pressure, coaching to adopt new habits, negative reinforcement, and role models—things organizations can draw on.
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