How much change should you aim for? Isn't any change better than none?

Written by Karen Spehr & Rob Curnow, Community Change, 2011


While it might be good to get some change, the effort and expense needed to get that amount of change might not really be worth it. There’s no point slogging away trying to achieve a change in behaviour too small to make a real difference or if only a very small proportion of people are making it.


If you can’t defend the cost effectiveness of your program, more funding to take it further is simply not justified. Also, if you make decisions right from the start of your project on how much change you expect, you can check on your expectations early during the pilot stage. This gives you time to make adjustments and extend your testing phase before committing to the entire project and its associated cost.


Another reason for including the amount of change you can reasonably expect is purely psychological but enormously powerful. We all tend to work better when trying to reach a target and if we are failing to reach it we will usually work hard to find out why. A common effort to solve a problem can also be a motivating experience for a team that is working on a difficult and often unacknowledged task.


An inspiring example of this occurred during the Apollo 13 space mission in 1970 when the command module was crippled by an oxygen tank that overheated and exploded meaning the carbon dioxide the astronauts expelled from their lungs would eventually kill them in days. The canisters in the command module had square filters but the openings in the lunar module, where the astronauts had moved for re-entry, were round. A group of engineers at NASA's Johnson Space Center had hours to come up with a carbon dioxide removal system using only items that were known to be on board Apollo 13. The engineers successfully used plastic bags, suit hoses, card board and duct tape to find a solution where basically, a square peg needed to fit in a round hole (1). Although we aren’t are NASA engineers trying to save lives, having specific targets for environmental programs responds to the human tendency to put in the required effort to get to a particular endpoint.


If behaviour change objectives are set cooperatively using project team members and based on the best available evidence, then the effort expended is likely to match the result. Problems are more likely to be anticipated and solved, resulting in less water used, less energy, less waste or whatever the objectives of the program are.  


Of course the opposite can also be true. It can be very disheartening to be so far off the mark with your expected outcome that it feels impossible to achieve. For this reason you might want to set a minimum target which you think would be fairly easy to achieve and a stretch target that is more challenging. That way once you have met your minimum, you can work enthusiastically towards the stretch objective with the aim of achieving as much change as you possibly can.



Atkinson, N. (2010). 13 Things That Saved Apollo 13, Part 10: Duct Tape. Universe Today, April 26.