Using the COM-B approach to change management

In my experience, HR professionals use a variety of models to support them when undergoing a change management project, from Kotter’s eight-step model, ADKAR to McKinsey 7S model and many others.

Choosing which one really depends on specific context, nature of the change and the desired outcome. One area to explore is the COM-B approach to behaviour change. The model suggests that sustained behaviour change is determined by three factors:

  • Capability – relates to the knowledge, skills and abilities to demonstrate the desired behaviour
  • Opportunity – relates to the environment and how it facilitates or hinders the behaviour
  • Motivation – relates to the desire to engage in the behaviour.

Power dynamics: Managing change in an organisation

Measuring change programmes' effectiveness

Leading change in an uncertain world

During change, we naturally consider the training that might be needed to enable individuals to adapt, over-emphasising the need to build capability while overlooking the importance of how we ignite motivation by building belief in the change, as well as considering how our environment supports us to adopt the behaviour.

Considering all three factors in our change approach enables us to understand the blockers to change and thus tailor our interventions accordingly.

COM-B in practice

I would love to bring the COM-B model to life using a real example.

A national logistics and distribution company was seeking to improve the safety of its fleet by routinely conducting vehicle checks. The goal was to have adoption rates of higher than 95%.

Initially the organisation had used more traditional change management approaches, including clarifying the purpose and vision of the change, highlighting what needed to be done and establishing KPIs to monitor progress, followed by short training sessions to build capability in undertaking the checks.

After three months, the adoption rate remained low (at less than 10%). MindGym was asked to help them understand why, and we used the COM-B approach to help identify what the key blockers to change were.

During our exploratory phase, including survey, focus groups and interviews, we were able to identify that the blockers to change were primarily opportunity and motivation. For example, drivers did not believe that reported faults would be addressed and therefore were not incentivised to do the check.

By diving more deeply with those impacted by the change, we were able to understand what blockers exist, and could then advise on which interventions would be most useful. Three months later the adoption rate was higher than 80%.

The COM-B model can be applied both in the planning phase of change, or as part of a diagnostic to understand why change is stagnating. It can also be used alongside other theories or processes.

Simple ways to apply it:

  • Identify your target audience – remember, we can achieve more by focusing on employees who are champions, silent supporters or fence-sitters
  • Clarify what behaviour you’d like them to demonstrate
  • Identify what the capability, opportunity or motivation blockers are
  • Develop interventions that target the most prevalent blockers

HR has a role in partnering with leaders in the business, enabling and empowering them to be change agents. They can provide expertise around change management methodologies and best practice, working alongside business leaders as trusted advisors to ensure the organisation collectively achieves its main objectives.

We can’t underestimate the critical role leaders play in driving sustainable change, to ensure new approaches are embedded in everyday practice.     

Melanie Warner is head of solutions at EMEA at MindGym