On Driving Change

"Change is hard" is a cliché. Living through change means uncertainty, challenge, and effort and those aren't always welcome. What I actually want to talk about, though, is the other side of that cliché: that causing change is hard.

I often see well-intentioned and well-delivered presentations meant to change behaviour. I've heard people passionately and intelligently argue for ways we should change. I've seen concepts taught clearly and concisely to help educate people about new ways of working. I suspect that in few of these cases has the result been equal to the expectation. Despite having a great idea and presenting it in a compelling manner, people are frustrated by what seems like a stubborn lack of change.

That frustration is understandable but in it we can often forget that what we're trying to change are people. Change is hard for people. We aren't all simple, rational actors who will always act in our own best interest or be swayed by a logical argument. Getting people to change is incredibly hard, especially if you don't acknowledge their nature. The good news is that if you understand that nature, you have a powerful tool to help engender change.

One of my favourite non-fiction books is Switch by Dan and Chip Heath. It's all about this topic and provides great techniques and examples to help drive change when change is hard. I'm going to be discussing what's in the book here but at a very high level. I strongly recommend reading the whole thing as it is clear, quick, and very practical.

The Elephant and Rider

The first thing the authors present is a model for how our mind works. Somewhat strangely, they suggest that we think of ourselves as an elephant and rider (This model actually comes from The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt but they use it as the foundation of their approach). If you think of an elephant and rider, you can probably guess at some aspects of their relationship. The rider is able to see further and plan a route but the power and size of the elephant are necessary to actually make the trip. The rider ostensibly directs the elephant but if there were something the elephant wanted to do, the rider wouldn't have much choice.

In us, the rider represents our rational, logical self. We plan. We analyze. We consider. This is a strength and a weakness. While being able to make logical decisions is what allows us to manage uncertainty, we also have a tendency to over-analyze and become paralyzed when faced with too much information or choice. The elephant is our emotional self. It is powerful but reactive. It can drive us incredible lengths but is easily distracted and tends to focus on short-term gain.

In order to get people to change, we need to appeal to both the rider and the elephant. By their nature, they respond to different things. Those rational arguments you're making might appeal directly to the rider but ignore the elephant. That may earn you head-nodding but it's likely that the people you've "convinced" won't have the conviction to change when they need it. Powerful emotional pleas may energize the elephant but don't offer the rider a clear idea of where to go. You may get change, but not the change you were aiming for. If we can engage both the elephant and the rider, we can give people all the tools they need to change.

Directing the Rider

Since the rider is responsible for analysis and planning, we need to make a rational appeal that guides both of those processes. We also need to avoid letting the rider become paralyzed by indecision. Our goal is to clearly direct the rider to where we want them to go.

To start to figure out how to do this, we can Follow the Bright Spots. Is there anywhere the change has already taken place? Is there anywhere where people seem more motivated to make this change? If we can find examples of what has worked elsewhere, we can use that knowledge in our own situation. Focus on what has worked for them and how you can leverage it in your own situation. We can also look at our own situation. Although it isn't where we want it to be, it probably also isn't the complete opposite. Identify any small steps that have already been taken in the right direction and use those to build on. It can be very motivating for people to see that they're already part way down the path (note that this sense of accomplishment would resonate with the elephant as well).

One important note: bright spots aren't always seen as a good thing. When we see others enjoying the success that we want, our initial reaction can be jealousy ("why can they do it and I can't?") or cynicism ("are they cheating?"). This is natural but is extremely counter-productive for what you're trying to accomplish. Remember, that other success means that the change you are fighting for has already happened somewhere! That's actually a huge boost to what you're trying to do. Make those people your allies and you will have a better idea of how to drive your own change.

To provide the clear direction that the rider needs, there are two things we have to focus on. The first is to Script the Critical Moves. The rider's weakness is being faced with too much choice. We need to whittle down the number of things that have to be done and express them in a way that is so clear that there can be no mistake about what to do next. This is the problem with admonishments like "eat healthy". The direction is so nebulous that it becomes impossible for the rider to decide what to do. Focusing on small, simple choices that lead to the goal is far more effective. Compare "drink skim milk instead of 2%" to "reduce fat intake": the former is clear and easily actionable while the latter leaves the rider mired in indecision.

The second is to Point the Destination. The rider is the planner. He or she will do a lot of the work to figure out how to get somewhere if they have a clear idea of where they're going. Again, clarity is key here. The destination needs to be articulated so that it leaves no room for misunderstanding. KPIs tend to be used as destinations (e.g. "Increase sales by 10%") and while they may be clear, they fail to make any kind of connection with the elephant. The destination we want to point to should also be one that inspires an emotional connection. This could be through hope or awe or pride but a destination has to be a place we want to strive for.

Motivating the Elephant

The elephant needs to feel the change. The elephant is a near-boundless source of energy for change but only if we can motivate it to expend that energy. The elephant isn't interested in facts or figures so we instead need to Find the Feeling. If we can find and foster the emotion for the change, people become engaged in the process. Why should people care about this change? How can you frame it in a way that appeals to our humanity? A great example of this for me is around accessibility. I know why we should do it and I know how we can do it but the first time I actually saw someone struggle with our site because of their vision impairment, it hit me right in the gut. It evoked an empathetic response that you will never get from explaining why it's important.

The elephant is directed by emotion and will value short-term gains over longer-term thinking. To put this to use for us, we need to Shrink the Change. When we succeed, we are inspired. When we are inspired, we are motivated to do more. If we can earn quick wins, we can build the elephant's momentum by creating hope. When we want to drive change, we need to set small, achievable goals in the service of the bigger picture to coax the elephant down the path and reinforce behaviour. An example of this is using something like the Pomodoro Technique to tackle a large task. By only agreeing to a small, set amount of time to work on something (e.g. "I'll just do the dishes for 5 minutes then take a break"), we avoid being overwhelmed by the whole and can earn a quick win. This progress inspires us to do more and to see that any large problem is normally just a set of much smaller (and more manageable) ones.

In addition to shrinking the change, we can try to Grow the People. When people make decisions, they very often base those decisions on their identity. There are numerous factors that make up our identity (e.g. "I am a Canadian", "I care about the environment", "I'm bad with money") and when people make decisions they are really trying to determine "am I the kind of person that does this?" Despite seeming so fundamental, identity is surprisingly malleable. If we can get people to believe they are the type of person who would make this change, they are able to choose with their identity. This involves reinforcing the aspects of the identity that align with the change and making sure that the identity is supported by action. For example, if our department wanted to foster collaboration through promoting that as part of our identity, people driving that change would need to act like people who care about collaboration. Through setting the example and reinforcing the idea, the members of the department may start to take on "we are people who collaborate" as part of their identity.

Shaping the Path

The elephant and rider are a part of their environment and in order to drive change, we need to consider that environment. In terms of the analogy, the environment is the path that the elephant and rider are on. If we can change the environment so that the elephant and rider have less environmental resistance along the path we want them to take, then they have to expend much less energy to get there and will be more compelled to do so.

The first approach is the Tweak the Environment. It's astounding how small a change to the environment is required to affect change. My desktop computer at home has been where I've done all things digital for many years. Some months ago, I got a tablet. I now use my desktop maybe once every week or two while I use my tablet every night. There are a number of reasons for such a radical change but for me one of the most significant is start-up time. My desktop takes about 30 seconds to start up. My tablet is instant. In the grand scheme of things, 30 seconds is nothing and yet it has prompted an almost complete change in my behaviour. Extremely small obstacles in our environment can have extremely large affects on the choices we make. If you are trying to incite a particular behaviour, examine the environment to see if there are any changes you can make to remove obstacles to that behaviour. If you are trying to diminish a certain behaviour, see if there are any obstacles you can add (this would be like freezing your credit cards in a block of ice). Be aware, however, adding obstacles when there is no clear, compelling alternative will just lead to frustration.

Another approach is to Build Habits. When people act out of habit, the behaviour comes for "free". There is no cognitive load involved so it doesn't cost the actor any of their energy or willpower. There are entire books written on this subject (The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg is a good one) but one simple idea is to make use of triggers. If we create can strongly connect an action to a specific circumstance, it can quickly build a habit. For example, what's the first thing you do when you sit down in your car? Hopefully it's putting on your seat belt. Sitting in the car is a trigger for doing up our seat belt and it has become so ingrained we just perform the action automatically when we get into that situation. If we wanted to get people submitting their time cards on time, we could link the action of submitting your time card to receiving the email from Scheduling on Monday morning. Eventually people will habitually perform the action when the see the trigger.

Finally, we can employ peer pressure in a good way if we Rally the Herd. Surrounding people with evidence that their peers are engaging in the behaviour you are promoting provides powerful social pressure to conform. It becomes much harder to resist change if it makes you an outsider to do so. This can be accomplished by highlighting examples of success and eventually indicating how few areas are left that still need to change (e.g. "95% of our department has already switched!"). Changes to behaviour are contagious so we need to people to be able to see the new behaviour taking hold.

Driving Change

Driving change is hard. There's a significant danger that people will give up on promoting their great ideas because of the frustration inherent in trying to drive change. We are all worse off if those people who are passionate enough to try to make things better are stymied in their efforts. While there is no magic solution, fully appreciating the bizarre and contrary nature of the people you're trying to change will make you more effective. If you're already frustrated, you may not want to hear something that sounds like "try harder" but what this all comes down to is that there is only one person we can actually change: ourself. The purpose of these techniques isn't mind control; they are just a way to help people change themselves. So if we can't change ourselves enough to consider new approaches to drive the change we want, how can we expect anyone else to change for us?