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Make it easier

Posted by Aubrey Warren on 23 May 2017

"What looks like a people problem is often a situation problem."

This simple statement from Chip and Dan Heath's book Switch: How to change things when change is hard, is a useful reminder about not falling prey to easy assumptions about people's performance.

Have your ever experienced the frustration of setting up a new approach (usually designed to be more efficient) only to have it resisted or ignored? (Shifts in records and reporting processe, attempts to create greater information sharing, or guidelines on more productive work practices might be familiar examples.) We explain it, demonstrate it and even provide the tools. Maybe even training. And yet compliance is low, frustration is high and complaints abound.

It's easy to shake our heads and wonder "What's wrong with these people?!"

"What looks like resistance is often a lack of clarity," the Heath brothers suggest. ("No," we're thinking, "this is genuine stubbornness." And at this point it's easy to default to carrot and stick approaches: rules and penalties, or inducements to do what should be better anyway. Or more training.)

Consider for a moment something called the Fundamental Attribution Error. It makes us inclined to attribute (other) people's behaviour to "the way they are" (in this case stubborn or resistant), rather than to the situation, circumstances or environment they are in. (Interestingly, we have no trouble acknowledging the situation, circumstances or environment when those things are apparently affecting our own performance or behaviour.)

For example, if people are not adopting a new process for reporting or record keeping, it might make sense to ask "why?". And if the answer is "It's too hard / I don't understand it / It doesn't work" or even just "I don't like it", then keep asking "why?" (the 5 Why approach to problem solving).

You'll likely find there's something that's complicating the process. And we don't like complicated. As Daniel Kahneman explains in Thinking Fast, And Slow, most of our thinking and judgment is done via a familiar, comfortable, intuitive and automatic process. It's why we default to routine and why habits are so hard to break. Our rational, conscious brain has limited capacity and tires quickly, so it preserves its energy by outsourcing as much as possible to the automated processes. So when we are faced with unfamiliar or difficult tasks it's easy for us to become frustrated. Hence, the challenge of changing things. It may make sense, but if it's unfamiliar or difficult then we'll baulk.

So, the Heath brothers suggest, make it a little easier. They call it "shaping the path". It's a principle that fits well with the leadership quest of "creating the conditions for others' success" - and one of the keys to that task is to "remove roadblocks". If we're going to lead the way then we have a responsibility to shape a path others can walk.
"Tweaking the environment is about making the right behaviors a little bit easier and the wrong behaviors a little bit harder."

In practical terms, what's the change you want to see (in yourself or others)? What might be preventing the change or making it difficult? How can you make it easier?
I like this example of "the sterile cockpit rule" from Switch.

The sterile cockpit rule was established in aviation to "shape the path" by acknowledging that take-offs and landings are the most intensive parts of a flight. So anytime a plane is below 10,000 feet no conversation is allowed in the cockpit apart from what's required to fly the plane.

But you don't have to be a pilot to apply this principle. The authors cite the example of an IT group adopting this principle to enable the development of new products (reducing the time from three years to nine months) by establishing "quiet hours" three mornings a week to enable coders to concentrate free of interruptions.

On a smaller scale, managers can tweak activities and even office layouts to encourage and simplify interactions with staff. For example, creating focused conversation spaces, or removing barriers to providing feedback and input.

The key is to remember that just because something makes sense to you, it won't necessarily be easily adopted by others. But we can increase the odds of success by considering how to "tweak the environment" to make the desired behaviours just a little easier.

If you'd like a copy of my free three-page summary of Switch: How to change things when change is hard, just email me your request and I'll be happy to send it to you.

Aubrey Warren
Situational Leadership® Master Trainer and Australia and New Zealand Affiliate for the Center for Leadership Studies

Heath, C. & D. (2011). Switch: How to change things when change is hard. Random House.
Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking Fast, And Slow. Penguin.

© Copyright Aubrey Warren 2017

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