Changing behaviour - Canadian Government Executive
Best Practice
May 7, 2012

Changing behaviour

Switch
Chip Heath and Dan Heath
Broadway, 305 pages, $32.00

Let’s resume last month’s discussion on effective change initiatives with some popcorn. Specifically, an experiment some psychologists dreamed up in which they handed a soft drink and a free bucket of popcorn to everyone arriving at a suburban Chicago movie theatre in 2000 to catch a Mel Gibson flick.

It may sound like a good deal for the recipients, but actually the popcorn was lousy. It had been popped five days earlier and was so stale that it squeaked when people ate it. Naturally, that didn’t stop anybody; even stale popcorn can be disgustingly habit-forming.

Here’s the interesting thing, however. Some people got their popcorn in a medium bucket and some in a large bucket. Each person got his or her own container, so effectively there was more in the bucket than an individual could consume. But consume they did, and in a very noteworthy way. People with the large buckets ate 53 percent more popcorn than people with the medium size.

So where’s the change angle? Chip Heath and Dan Heath – the brothers who wrote the wonderful 2007 best seller on marketing, Made To Stick – note that the study and others like it show that people eat more when you give them a large container. After all, they weren’t eating for pleasure. They weren’t likely to finish their portion. They were influenced in consumption by the size of the container.

Imagine you were in charge of a government program to promote healthier eating behaviours. Imagine the current focus was on the over-indulgence in movie theatres. If you wanted to change behaviours, would you be better to run ads before the movies on the dangers of eating calorie-laden popcorn, or to give people smaller containers of popcorn?

The Heath brothers say the lesson as changemeisters we need to draw from it is that often what looks like a people problem in change efforts is actually a situation problem. That’s the first of three surprising thoughts about change they set out at the start of their latest book, Switch.

The second surprising idea deals with the often-prominent concern in change programs about laziness. Change requires self-discipline. So the bigger the change you’re promoting, the more it will sap people’s self control. Change is hard, and people wear themselves out. So what often looks like laziness when change efforts go awry is actually exhaustion.

Finally, they note that what looks like resistance to change is often a lack of clarity. They point with distaste to the widely-celebrated food pyramid, which is used by nutritionists to promote healthy eating but gives so much information about choices that it is too confusing to be of practical effect in dieting. By contrast, a public health campaign that simply and clearly told people to buy one percent milk was specific enough to change many individuals’ purchasing behaviour, encouraging a healthier diet.

Those three surprises on change form the core of their prescription for effective change:

Direct the rider: Since what looks like resistance is often lack of clarity, you must provide crystal-clear direction for the person riding along the change path as the folks running the program promoting one percent milk did.

Motivate the elephant: Think of that rider headed down the change path as perched atop a metaphorical elephant that represents our mammoth, often out-of-control emotional self that we must direct in change efforts. The rider – our mind, in this metaphor – becomes exhausted if it must fight incessantly against emotions in trying to go down the path of change. So it’s critical in change initiatives that you engage people’s emotional side, keeping the elephant on the path.

The authors repeat a memorable story from leadership guru John Kotter’s book, The Heart Of Change, co-written with Dan Cohen. An employee seeking change in his company’s purchasing procedures took an unusual tack. Rather than writing a report on out-of-control spending, he obtained examples of the 424 different types of gloves being purchased and dumped them on a table, with tags that hammered home the fact that departments often paid widely divergent prices for the same glove. The emotion he stirred up got everyone neatly charging down his preferred change path.

Shape the path: Since what looks like a people problem is often a situation problem, you have to reshape the situation, or as the authors prefer to call it, the path. As discussed earlier, shrink movie popcorn buckets instead of running commercials in theatres urging people to eat healthier.

“Whether the switch you seek is in your family, in your charity, in your organization, or in society at large, you’ll get there by making three things happen. You’ll direct the rider, motivate the elephant, and shape the path,” they observe.

That’s pretty clear. But it’s also quite general. In the interest of shaping the path, they take each of those three approaches and offer more specific instructions.

To direct the rider, they tell us to first look for bright spots – places where things are working better in your organization. See what lessons are presented by those bright spots. In 1990, when Save The Children’s Jerry Sternin was working to fight malnutrition in Vietnam, he travelled to rural villages, met with local mothers, and weighed the kids, looking for very poor kids who were bigger and healthier than the typical children, to unearth practices worth emulating. In effect, the Heath brothers note, he was trying to focus the mothers’ riders.

Then script the critical moves you expect the rider to take. The third element in directing the rider is to point to the destination with clarity. An elementary school teacher did this wonderfully when she optimistically told her disadvantaged grade one students that by the end of the year they would each be a third grader in reading ability.

To motivate the elephant, get individuals to feel the need for change, as those 424 gloves on the table did.

Since people find it more motivating to be partly finished with a long change journey, help them feel closer to the finish line. Charities do that routinely by lining up big donors before announcing their fund drive, so when the launch comes they are already a healthy distance toward the finish line. Or limit the investment you are asking people to make in the change effort, so it seems less foreboding.

The third element in motivating the elephant is to grow your people. Build within them a belief that they can change and improve.

Finally, to shape the path, you must tweak the environment to shape behaviour, as supermarkets do by placing the milk at the back of the store so we spend more time there. You must also build habits, so the change becomes easier, or break them, as smokers do when they try to give up the habit when on vacation, away from the everyday cues to puff. Third, you must rally the herd, as people look to others for clues on how to behave. For example, a hotel placed a sign in every room indicating the majority of guests reuse their towels at least once during their stay.

In a sense, those are nine levers you can push in a change initiative. You don’t have to use all of them. But you should ponder all of them, and how they might be leveraged to gain the change you are seeking. And as you can see, the Heath brothers’ model works well with either workplace change or societal change that you may need to fashion in your government role. As well, it’s an enjoyable read, the lessons flowing from endless memorable examples.

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