Change is hard – behavior change – not so much!

This amazing slide deck on the 10 top mistakes in behavior change from Stanford University’s Persuasive Tech Lab is important both for personal use and managerial use. It reminds of a many of the concepts so skillfully described in Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard. I thought I take a few and try to elaborate questions for managers of people:

1. Relying on will-power for long-term change: I know it happened to me before as a team leader. We sat together, analyzed our past behaviors and agreed we have to change a behavior. “OK”, we said together “Next time, we will just be more aware and do this thing. No excuses”. The problem is, that the behavior we wanted did not go unpracticed because of lack of motivation or a disagreement about its importance. Will-power if not enough. You and your team should ask yourselves: What is the practical way to make sure this will happen assuming we all lack will-power.

2. Attempting big leaps instead of baby changes: I love this one. Many time out of a truthful desire to make an impact, we set a grandiose plan to change everything. Change is hard. It takes time. Creating new habits require emotional strength. People can only focus on so much. Sit with your team and deiced on a gradual plan with milestones. Just like an avalanche – start small in order to finish big. The small things matter – big time.

7. Believing that information leads to action: This one took me a long time to learn and I still struggle with it from time to time. As quoted in The 7 Triggers to Yes: The New Science Behind Influencing People’s Decisions – “We are not thinking machines that feel. We are feeling machines that think”. Just because people are presented with the information does not mean they will change the behavior. You have to pierce through the veil of indifference. Ask yourself – is the problem in my team lack of information? Many times, you will discover they have all the information, they just don’t care enough.




Spreading positivity

Photo by tango 48


A short paragraph from the book Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard:

In a more exhaustive study, a psychologist analyzed 558 emotion words – every one that he could find in the English language – and found that 62 percent of them were negative versus 38 percent positive. That’s a pretty shocking discrepancy. According to an old urban legend, Eskimos have 100 different words for snow. Well, it turns out that negative emotions are our snow.

This reminded me of an experiment I heard about in a Judgment and Decision-Making class. People were shown different words. Some were positive (Baby, Fun, Happiness, Kitten, Smile, Sweet, Friend) and some were negative (Fear, Bomb, Rude, Thief, Shark, Cancer, Weapon). Each word was shown for 13.3 milliseconds. They were then asked two questions:

  1. What was the word?
  2. Was it positive or negative?

Most of the people could not recognize the words. However, they were able to determine much more accurately, if the word was negative than when it was positive. One possible explanation is that by evolution, we are wired to better spot negative and threatening things. If you miss that berry on the tree, that’s a shame. If you miss the Saber Tooth Lion lurking behind you, you might die.

But we shouldn’t let the fact that negativity controls our language and sub-conscious to allow it to control our lives. It just means we have to work harder. To think more closely on how we say things. To make an effort and look for the sliver-lining, the bright spots and the part of the glass that is half full.

We are not in the Savanna any more. There are no lurking lions. We are dealing with people who feed off relationships. Positivity is a contiguous thing but so is negativity.

What are you spreading? I sure hope it’s positivity germs…


More on safety, rules and unintended consequences

Photo by ianmunroe


One of the questions people often ask me after they watch my No More Rules presentation concerns the issues of rules around safety. The logic goes something like this: even if we agree with you that rules are bad, sometimes, in the sake of safety, we have to make so many rules, after all, it saves people lives.

This is a worthy point that I don’t explain well enough in the presentation itself and is worth an additional short explanation.

Even in the presentation itself I emphasize that I don’t think all rules are bad. Rules are a legitimate way to regulate behavior. The point I am trying to make is two folded. First,when we do choose rules, there is a problem with the way we make them – they focus on limiting instead on unlimiting. Second, our overuse of rules is a problem.

Rules that are unlimiting, that create value, that protect are great rules. Like the rule that demands that every person in the operating room state his name in the beginning of the operation so there will be better communication. Because this is a rule that actually saves lives. It is a great rule.

There is a danger in the accumulation of rules. Richard Hackman, in Leading Teams, talks about the effects of over regulating the cockpit environment:

All the well-intentioned additions to procedure manuals, together with all the automated devices that have been introduced into cockpits and all the management directives intended to promote efficiency or passenger service, may be having what policy analysts call perverse effects…. It is certainly true that too much latitude for flight crews can result in a poorly disciplined cockpit in which members are unable to predict who is going to take what action next. But it also is true that too much standardization, even in the interest of safety, sometimes can perversely result in crews monitoring systems and executing procedures less attentively and deliberately than would be ideal – especially when, as usually is the case, the flight is routine and everything’s seems to be proceeding normally.

When you use too much rules, people forgo judgment!

In Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard the writers describe an example. They tell how a department manager in General Motors succeeded in making the Injury rate in this department drop 21 percent from previous levels (which was already one of the best in plants doing similar work). How?

Poppe threw out the old complicated policy and boiled down the new safety policy to two specific behaviors… that’s it.

Less rules, but rules that are tailored to the situation.

In the case of safety, many times the best way to create a safer environment is to use only design and not rules at all. It just take more time, effort and thinking. It is much easier to make a rule. But it is not necessarily the most effective way. In another part of Switch, the authors describe a machine that only operates if you press buttons with both your hands. That way you can’t endanger your hands even if you wanted to. No rules. Design!

Think about baby proofing an apartment – instead of telling the kid not to touch the obvious things, we create a safer environment. And when he does touch something (and he will, because we can’t think of anything), we need to make sure he learns a general lesson from that. If we only spend time telling him what he cannot do, how will he be able to develop judgment?

Rules are not bad by themselves. Rules are bad when used in the wrong places and in the wrong way. And they are especially bad when used in an excessive manner like we see in some of the dominant business practices in our society. It is true for safety as it is true for sales as it is true for any other field.

So again, let’s stop with the rules.


Managerial attention

Photo by Andrew Turner


I am a person who is usually on time. I am just wired like that. I don’t know if it something I picked up at home (my Father is like that, my brother isn’t though). I am also quite a nerd when it comes to school. It is rare for me to miss a class. So to many times in my life I have experienced “the talk”. The professor stands there, usually a few minutes after the class begun and starts preaching about the importance of being on time or of being there at all. And I am left there sitting and thinking to myself: “hey, but I am here! I came on time!”. It is not only that I feel disrespected because I am being lectured about something that I have done correctly, I also get angry because the professor is wasting my valuable time.

I was thinking of this situation today when I was reading Andrew J. Hoffman post on Firing Someone: What They Don’t Teach You in B-School. Hoffman tells a story from his early career where he had to fire a number of people in a short period of time. Even thought the actions were justified, Hoffman felt guilty because of how he affected those peoples’ lives. When he confided in a peer and asked him what he thought about it, the friend told him he was totally right. When Hoffman continued to doubt himself the conversation came to this:

“Now wait a minute, Andy,” cautioned Benjamin. “You’re making it sound like your decisions were arbitrary. Were they?”


“Right, you made these decisions for a reason. Don’t you think the guys that got fired know that? And,” he paused, “Don’t you think the guys that are still on the job know that too?”

“Yeah, I guess so. But I wonder what they see?”

“They see someone who’s trying to hold a high standard of work. Stop thinking about the guys you fired and start thinking about the guys you still employ. They’re the ones who deserve your attention.”

In the last few months I wrote a number of times about the idea, explained in detail in the book Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard, that sometimes, we need to focus on what is working and not on what is not working. Focusing on the positive. In this case – the people who are on time and present. Or the people who do a great job and are not fired.

I wrote about the bigger phenomenon in the past:

I think this is true not only in the business setting, but also in other settings. So much attention goes to weak students, the troublesome soldiers, for those who fail that we forget those who succeeded, those who do everything right and those who are on the verge of excelling. I think, for example, that in any school, there should be at least an equal number of hours and resources spent on the most excellent students as those who go into those who struggle. How many times did you sit in class and felt that you are not being challenged because the teacher was going slower so the weak students could catch up. Now what would have happened if you were challenged?

As managers, parents, teachers, coaches or friends we all have one resource that is scared. Attention time. We have to make choices everyday about who to spend our time with and what to focus our attention on. Human have a tendency to see more of a negative than a positive (from an evolution stand point it makes sense – negative things used to eat us!). So we need to be careful with our intuitive tendencies and make sure we deliberately spend attention on what works. Here is another short paragraph I wrote about this in the past:

Godin got it just right. We ignore those who fit the mold. We let them stay in their mediocrity and put our efforts somewhere else. If you are a cog doing its job, I, the manager, can ignore you. I want peace and quiet. And when employees only get management attention when they are out of line, they start doing everything they can to not be noticed by management – that means no risks, not extraordinary thing. Mediocrity. Management failure.


The failure in the success and the success in the failure


Michael Schrage writes in about the failure of failure. While it is beginning to dawn on the business community that failure is an important part of business and it should be used as a means of learning, there are still many mysteries around how exactly to incorporate that into everyday practices.

But Schrage takes a different look at the question of failure. He asks which failure is the best to learn from. His answer – failures that are not complete failures. He uses an example from a statement by an engineer trying to explain that they learned more about the recent disaster in Chile from buildings that almost collapsed than from building that totally collapsed. Here is how he summarizes this point:

In this respect, the structural engineering insight from Chile and other disaster zones makes conventional perceptions of “learning from failure” a misnomer. The real epiphany is that what makes the “partially damaged” structures so valuable to learn from is that they were less failures than underachievers. That is, there was enough “success” in what was left standing that good engineers now have empirical evidence of what they can do better next time.

A few weeks ago I wrote about the power of small victories and how focusing on them is a great way to increase happiness, learning and satisfaction. Maybe the lesson from what Schrage writes is that we need to also focus on small failures. Not the big ones where everything went out of order, but the small ones, where you can directly and specifically improve (and in the process, gain small victories).

Avid readers of this blog (is the plural “s” here relevant??) out there would point that just a couple of weeks ago I wrote that we should focus on what works instead of what doesn’t work. Now suddenly you want us to focus on what did not work? Well… yes.

First, because part of my philosophy is that we need to celebrate contradictions (F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said that “the true test of a first-rate mind is the ability to hold two contradictory ideas at the same time”). Second, because these are two different mind tools. One is useful to try and find a way out of hard situations and instrumental in creating change (and see more on this in the new book Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard). The second is a tool for constant improvement. Both are essential in the day to day portfolio of the business manager.

But the importance of the two tools goes even deeper. When something fails it is vital to focus not only on what isn’t working, but also on what is working as this many times represents the way out of the failure. On the other hand, whey success happens it can be blinding. That is when we need not only to learn from the positive results (which is very important) but also focus the mind on the little things that could have gone better or that we got lucky with (and luck always plays a role).

So, how do you use the failure in the success and the success in the failure?


Decision tools

Photo by mattwi1s0n


This is the third post in a series of post I am writing after reading Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking by Malcolm Gladwell (for former post see 1, 2).

One of the sentences that struck me as the most important in Blink comes from the afterword. This is it:

The key to good decision-making is not knowledge. It is understanding. We are swimming in the former. We are desperately lacking the latter.

This sentence is built upon a number of stories in the book (and connects to other writings by Gladwell about the perils of too much information). One of the leading stories it refers to is the story of how Cook County Hospital improved the decision-making of its doctors by telling them to focus only on three pieces of information in the entire sea of details they had about patient in order to make a decision whether he was a risk for heart attack. Even though all doctors felt that this was the wrong way to go, as they were ignoring precious information, it turned out that by focusing only on three issues, doctors made much better decisions that not only saved money, but more importantly, saved lives.

I have written before about the dangers of using the information and measurements we have just because we have them. As we continue to develop in terms of technology, we will have more and more data and information. As Gladwell says in Blink:

We take it, as a given, that the more information decision makers have, the better off they are. If the specialist we are seeing says she needs to do more tests or examine us in more detail, few of us think that’s a bad idea… extra information isn’t actually an advantage at all; that, in fact, you need to know very little to find the underlying signature of a complex phenomenon.

In my mind this connects perfectly with the idea of Vital Signs. This is what I wrote almost a year and a half ago:

I believe the challenge of managers in the next few years, especially in the more subtle fields that are hard to measure will be to create the right vital signs.

I am I the process of reading Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard by the Heath brothers and one of the main concepts of the book is about scripting change. They describe the importance of making people aware of the basic decision principles to guide their specific behavior. They give example of major changes accomplished by ordinary people who harnessed the power of simplifying the decision-making. How? By creating scripted concepts that help decide what is important and what is not.

Reading Blink and Switch just strengthened my understanding of this concept. People are cognitive misers. They are not able and do not want to deal with large amounts of information. As Blink (and Switch) show, when they are faced with so much information it actually affects their judgment, usually in a negative way. The most successful people are not going to be those who can master and absorb large amounts of information. It will be those who will know how to distill this information into a few major signs that help guide decision-making. Thus, our rule as managers is to find the vital signs and make them crystal clear. We need to make sure that we are tackling the right issue. Not lack of information. Lack of decision tools.