By Steve Wunker
This blog first appeared as Steve Wunker’s piece for Forbes
Our work and home lives have been turned upside-down by COVID, and many businesses have had to find new ways to sell, service, and operate. Some of these changes – while jarring – may stick after the crisis recedes. But which ones? Will virtual learning become routine? Remote teams? Distance selling?
The same principles that predict which innovations do and do not get adopted can tell us a lot about whether new behaviors will stick after the pandemic passes. Below are six tests of a new behavior to see what will last. Not all six factors need to be met for a behavior change to persist, but the factors mutually reinforce and so have a stronger impact the more that are involved. Here, we’ll evaluate how they apply to a big commercial change for the life science industry.
1. Core Motivations Shift
In our book Jobs to be Done, we use several tools to explain why people do what they do. “Jobs” are underlying functional and emotional motivations that cause people in a B2B, B2C, or personal setting to have certain behaviors and preferences. To understand behavior change, you need to dig beneath the behaviors seen on the surface to determine what Jobs they get done.
o see how this applies in a specific situation, consider how the life science industry has been forced to move toward selling devices and drugs remotely. At a great many hospitals and outpatient facilities, sales representatives are no longer going into Operating Rooms, consultation rooms, or offices. It’s unsafe for the spread of disease, to the patients, physicians, and sales reps. Consultation on which device to use, tuning of devices to a patient’s particular needs, and discussion of a drug’s therapeutic benefits have to occur either remotely or through better enabling the medical staff on the ground.
Seen from the perspective of a hospital, physician education and workforce efficiency remain important Jobs to be Done, but the tradeoffs within them have become scrambled. While a sales rep can provide valuable assistance with selecting and tuning medical devices, for instance, coordinating with these reps may create more work for other hospital staff. The recent absence of these sales reps has affected dynamics and power balances in unexpected ways. With COVID causing severe financial pressures on healthcare facilities, the potential to save money by choosing devices solely on tender contracts administered by purchasing teams may outweigh the harder-to-quantify efficiency gains that sales reps bring to medical teams. The importance of core motivations – reflected by the increased power of the finance department – has indeed changed.
2. New Approaches Are Appealing
Sometimes, new approaches surprise us with their upsides. My thirteen-year-old, for instance, admits he may in fact prefer virtual learning, since so many of the social pressures of seventh grade are no longer relevant! Change can force us to evaluate the hidden pleasures – and detriments – of new approaches that theoretical consideration could never illuminate.
Many life science companies have long wanted to step away from extensive in-person visits by their reps to tune devices. The reps are well-compensated people doing what becomes, for them, routine work. As these companies’ sales volumes have declined due to the postponement of elective procedures, it would be an easy cost savings to keep more of these reps at home and on hand remotely to consult on devices without driving an hour to be in the facility at the same time that relevant patients come through.
3. Inertia Ends…
We often do things because our context gels behaviors into place, even when we fully have the abilities to change. If you doubt this, consider that indoor plumbing took 4,500 years to catch on from its first invention, due to the fact that homes and cities would need to be redesigned to supply the water and carry away the sewerage. It was obviously a great idea, but that was not enough.
While it has had a terrible overall impact, COVID has been the great Inertia Breaker. There are definitely positives in this. My seventh-grader is re-assessing what types of schooling might be best for him, rather than simply doing what his parents did before him. We are no longer set in old patterns, because we’ve had to adopt new ones so rapidly.
For life science companies, it was always going to be challenging to be the first in their industry to stop in-person visits. Rivals would quickly gobble up their market share. But no longer. Now that the mold has been forcibly broken, there is weak incentive to jump back into it. The cost savings from the new ways of working are just too great.
4. …Only For It To Resume Afterward
Inertia is one of Newton’s three laws of motion that govern the observable universe. It’s powerful. We should expect its consequences to resume soon. After COVID, will hospitals allow representatives to resume their sales calls? This would require several decision-makers to agree, the hospital may want to poll its staff on their preferences, and work patterns would need to change a second time to accommodate the change. Reversion to the old status quo may be slow, if it occurs at all.
5. Critical Mass Is Achieved
It used to be awkward to be the only person in a meeting attending via Zoom. But when everybody’s doing it, the stigma vanishes. Moreover, virtual meetings become more effective when everyone is using the full suite of Zoom’s tools such as chat windows, virtual whiteboards, and polling. Zoom benefits from critical mass.
Behavior shifts are often a social phenomenon. People change in groups. This applies in B2B settings too. If most hospitals are restricting sales visits, it’s easier to follow along than to initiate change. If most life science companies are no longer present in the Operating Room, it’s straightforward to join the crowd. We have a critical mass of virtual sales visits and support now. Changing back would require a critical mass to accumulate on the other side of the ledger, and that’s a tall order.
6. Infrastructure Locks in Change
Now that many of us have invested in home offices and home gyms, the long-term viability of these options has improved. Just as indoor plumbing didn’t catch on until the Industrial Revolution created the rapid urbanization which enabled new neighborhoods to be built, COVID has enabled investment in infrastructure too.
Life science companies have now invested in training their reps and their customers to deal effectively with remote sales and support. Home office set-ups have improved. Virtual tools are being rolled out. The new normal looks like it may last.
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Taken together, these six factors explain how behavior change occurs, and what changes will stay vs. become fleeting. We should expect many of our new COVID behaviors to stick. The great Inertia Breaker will have an enduring impact.
Click for a series of working papers on managing an organization through the coronavirus crisis, including a more detailed version of this piece.