Last week, I was looking for a book to listen to (yes I said listen to, because of my schedule, the only time I have to “read” books is when I’m driving to and from work. Thanks Audible!), and my CEO recommended a book called “Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard” by Chip and Dan Heath. At first, the title didn’t resonate with me much; it sounded like one of those fluffy “yes you can do it, just believe in it” type of books that were solely based on believing in yourself. Now, I’m not saying motivational books are bad, but I tend to prefer works like “Predictably Irrational” by Dan Ariely and “Freakonomics” by Levitt and Dubner, simply because I am a big fan of scientific research that explores every day topics.
However, once I started listening to the very first chapter of Switch, I knew I was in for quite the ride. Furthermore, I learned a few things from this book that can really help project managers bring about the change that is necessary for success within their teams. Read on to find out my take on Switch and see if you can learn a few tricks from it!
Size Does Matter
Switch starts out by detailing a fascinating experiment: Researchers let some popcorn go very stale so that there was no real enjoyment in eating it, and then gave two different portions (medium and large) to separate audiences for free. Both of these sizes were way too big for the average person to finish anyway, but what they found out was very interesting: the people who received the larger buckets ate 53% more, simply because they had a bigger portion. We can’t say it was because they enjoyed the experience; in fact, the popcorn was so wretched that two participants apparently forgot that they had received the popcorn for free and demanded a refund!
This experiment showed that people eat more when you give them a bigger container. There is no other explanation. Larger portions can be as effective as hunger and enjoyment in increasing consumption. So what is the takeaway for a public health expert from such a study? Shrink the portion and you’ll reduce consumption and the associated problems like obesity. Seems crazy simple, no?
Logic (does not) Trump All
The book is full of similar studies where bringing about the change that is necessary to overcome a seemingly insurmountable problem can be as simple as changing a few key factors. There are three main areas they focus on: Rational and logical reasoning to convince someone to change, emotional or personal approach to compel the change, and altering the environment so that the change becomes easier than maintaining the status quo. This was very interesting for me; my usual approach for bringing about change is to make a logical argument, show that the new state is much better than the current state, and hope that the person is as logical as I am. I would say that this worked 50% of the time (and about 5% of the time with my girlfriend!) simply because the person that I was interacting with had the same mentality as I did only about half the time.
The other 50% was pure frustration, as I did not get the change I want even though objectively, it is a more desirable state than the current one. Switch argues that emotional appeals and altering the environment are just as necessary, and usually even more effective, than logical appeals. I’m not going to go into the emotional aspect much in this blog post because in project management, you may not have the opportunity to bring in emotions, but rather talk about altering the environment, or the “path” as the book calls it. This does not mean the emotional approach is not effective, so if you do have the opportunity, please go ahead and read the book to learn about its power.
Nature vs. Nurture
Altering the path is exactly what the researchers did in the popcorn study: they didn’t make a logical suggestion that participants eat more, nor did they try to bring in emotions (“if you don’t finish your popcorn, the remainder will be thrown out, don’t you agree that this would be such a waste of food?”) to compel people to eat more. They simply change the environment by giving some people bigger containers, and saw an amazing switch in the behaviors of people. Wouldn’t you want a 53% increase in any metric you were trying to alter? I know I would be jubilant if such a small effort had such a huge impact!
Applying to Project Management
So how does this apply to project management? Well, in any setting where you are leading a project, it means you are leading a team, which in turn means that you have people to deal with. In an ideal world, the incentives and the drive levels of all the people on your team would be perfectly aligned with yours, so that you only had to state the goal for that project and things would be done to the letter. However, as anyone who has led a team of more than one (i.e. themselves) knows, humans are fascinatingly complex beings with very different motivations, aspirations, and lives. Just because your goal is to complete project A on time and 10% under budget doesn’t mean that your lead graphic designer will feel the same way and put it at the top of his priorities list. Therefore, to get your team moving down the path towards success, you will inevitably need to affect (positively) the behaviors of your team members.
The goal of trying to alter the environment is to make it easier to act the way you desire than to maintain the current behavior, or to do anything different. So for example, if you want everyone to submit timesheets daily before they leave the office, you should make it so that the act only takes 10-15 seconds, and they do not get called out in the daily morning meetings for missing out on this obligation. This is only one example, and might not be the most applicable to your specific situation, but you get the idea: for each and every person on your team, the new act becomes more desirable due to changing circumstances so that if they do opt to behave in this way, they will have a more pleasant time in the office than if they don’t.
Notice that altering the path does have logical (“the action only takes 10 seconds and it will put me in the good books, so I might as well do it”) and emotional (“I don’t want to be called out in front of everyone so I might as well do it”) aspects to it, because you can never have the three parts of the change in complete isolation. However, when altering the path, you don’t directly interact with the people and make an emotional or logical appeal; you just make it easier for them to act the way you want and in this case, in the best interest of your project.
Another example would be dealing with laggards if you want the workdays to start at a certain time. Logically, these people know that they should be in the office at the appointed time. Emotionally, they may not be very invested in this goal for a bunch of reasons like too much love of sleep. However, if you shape the path and say, set the critical morning meetings where the whole day is planned at the time you want people to start, you’ll be guaranteed to encourage earlier kickoffs for the majority of your team. They will have two choices: wake up half an hour early and be aware of what is happening the whole day, or sleep in an extra half hour and be lost and confused (or worse, have to ask you for what they have missed) that workday. Just like rivers, people tend to flow through the path of least resistance, and therefore your goal is to make that path fit nicely with the actions you desire.
I hope this lengthy post has stimulated your brain so that you have one or two (or six) new ideas on how you can improve the performance of your team by inciting the change you need. I highly recommend Switch as it’s a great book supported by a ton of research, which has actionable insights for you to adopt immediately. We all want to change things in our lives; be they personal or professional. Even if it doesn’t make the change happen for you, Switch will help you think of new ways to alter things to your benefit. Just make sure that you use your new powers of persuasion for the good!