Posts Tagged Change

A little bit of “nudging” on London’s South Bank

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Regular readers of this blog (?!?!?) will be well aware of my interest in all forms of human/social psychology and in particular my interest in the role of behavioural and social psychology in managing change.

It’s an area of study that’s become quite sexy of late, perhaps with the poster child being Steve Hilton himself, stripped bare and holding a well thumbed copy of “Nudge” in a strategic position for the annual Conservative Party’s WI calendar.

It’s all rather simple really. Just a recognition of what psychologists have been telling us for some time. How we make decisions/choices is a much more subconcious and often malleable process than we might like to imagine – a process which might be influenced (deliberately or otherwise) by a myriad of  subtle (or not so subtle) factors including deliberate commercial or political “nudging”.

No point in me regurgitating a century of study here. Just pick up an one of: “Nudge”, “The Tipping Point“, “Blink”, “59 Seconds: Think a little Change a Lot”, “Freakonomics” or “How we Decide (the list is potentially enormous) and indulge yourself.  In my opinion anyone embarking on a career in advertising, political policy, sales, marketing, change management, branding or religious outreach (Amen) should be forced to read all of these tomes and a few others besides before they darken the door of any self respecting employer in any one of those “industries”.  An interest in and understanding of the psychology and subtlety of human behaviour should be de-rigour for all.

I’ve been interested in the varied work of the in London for some time. Not least because I get to spend hallowed time most weeks in the company of one of it’s leading brand thinkers – Sean McKnight. At the end of last week The Engine Group (EG)  had this little piece on their web-blog: on the subject of behavioural psychology (or behavioural economics if you will). I thought it was good that EG are exposing more of their disparate teams to this discipline (although I’d blithely assumed they’d all be light years ahead in their public reflections) but more importantly it did make me think about a lovely example of behavioural nudging in action which I saw on Friday in London.

Opposite Gabriel’s Wharf on the South Bank, you will, during the course of the year, find a group of folks who use the small sandbank there to sand sculpt. They’ve been dong this for years. I’ll occasionally throw 50p down into the circle they’ve drawn in the sand to collect tips but never more. But of late they have adopted a new tactic to nudge us into giving “more generously”. They have set up two yellow buckets with a small portable bicycle bell set inside each one. There is a little note beneath each bucket inviting onlookers to throw some tips and “See if you can ring the bell”.

I invite you to pop along and watch what happens. Based on the last two five minute visits I’ve made, I  predict their tips are up maybe 300% minimum.

But why?

Because now not only are people throwing coins (tips) to reflect their appreciation of the sand sculptures; they are throwing coins to – much more importantly (and in some cases it seemed, exclusively) – see if they can make a small bell, in the bottom of a yellow bucket go ‘Ding’. It is a nudge to one of our strongest instincts and motivations – to succeed in a task that should be eminently achievable but is often frustratingly not. Add the public setting (no one likes to look bad in public and the ‘herding’ influence of others on our behaviour is more powerful than we may accept!), the fun atmosphere created as we try (and try) and the satisfactory feedback/reciprocation provided by the simple “ding” of a bell in the bucket and you have the ingredients for the perfect nudge.

I watched today as one lady asked “What happens if I hit the bell?”.  Having been told – “nothing, it makes a “ding””, she spent 3 minutes throwing coin after coin at the bell in the bucket to no avail; I threw a sum total of £1 in coins trying to hit said bell, as did my lowly paid companions.  Even more interesting was watching how a group of 6 people, who had almost walked past the sandbank, turned on hearing a faint “ding” (followed by great cheering from the friends of the aforementioned lady who, £5 down I reckon, had eventually hit the “jackpot”). Said party then each proceeded to throw coins at the yellow bucket with barely a glancing appreciation of the sand sculptures and so on until we decided to leave.

I bet if you asked 50% of those people 5 minutes after they’d left the scene what the two sand sculptures were that day, they wouldn’t even be able to tell you*. It was one of the most simple and stunningly effective applications of behavioural nudging that you’ll see in a social context in London today. For any male readers – it’s bit like those little flies on the back of certain “progressive” urinals (a subliminal target for you to aim at to reduce the amount of “splash-back”)…simple, yet deadly effective.

All those industries I listed, but most importantly, political policy, are (it would seem and we should hope) learning much from moving behavioural psychology and economics to the heart of what they do in both Policy formulation and execution. In an era when we have scarcer resources with which to encourage, facilitate and deliver some Big Society shaped national scale behaviour change then every arsenal in our weaponry much be drawn down.

There is of course more, much much more, to facilitating large scale human change than dropping a few bells in the bottom of a bucket (another blog on that subject is due) but it does demonstrate that for all our self congratulatory sophistication, we are simple animals in so many ways, driven by a few fundamental primitive instincts. The challenge is to harness that simplicity and those instincts to assist society in making smarter decisions about our health, wealth and happiness. In all those industries a fundamental question we must ask in shaping products, offerings or policies is this: which of our basic human instincts/longings/aspirations does this play to and therefore how best shall it be framed to lead “customers” to the most “appropriate” response.

There is a fascinating debate to be had about whether subliminal nudging is enough (or even immoral) or whether “customers” need to be granted a more active understanding of and participation in how certain choices impact both ourselves and others if behaviour change is to be sustained (and moral) but that’s for another day. For now, I’m off to sort out my bell and yellow bucket. You can find me outside the Ritzy in Brixton between 10am – 4pm; making daisy chains for tips….

*A rather fetching lady’s face and a starfish like creature were the order of the day….once you saw past those yellow buckets.

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Stop the clocks – Change success revelation!

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The Harvard Business Review rarely lets me down but today they strayed into the business of “stating  the bloody obvious”:

I mean what next: Joseph Ratzinger outed as a Catholic and a bear found “taking a break” in the woods? I hope they got reduced rates from McKinsey on this one!!

Employee engagement in change programs has long been known to be a critical success factor in any effort at organisational change so no idea why this was worthy of “Daily Stat” release today or any other day.

I’ll forgive them this time…but something inside me died a little…

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Survival Anxiety & the Public Sector

*Note added 11th May 2010 with the announcement of David Cameron as British Prime Minister:

“Tonight, as David Cameron started his tenure as British Prime Minister I reflected on the post below from Oct 2009. Although it relates to a very narrow idea of “survival anxiety” associated with the management of change, I sense tonight a very real “survival anxiety” stalks our Public Sector. If, as promised, David Cameron and George Osborne make immediate cuts (aka “efficiency savings” ) to our Public Sector then many will be anxious and many will not survive. My thoughts are with them and hope only that in undertaking their program of “reform” the ConDem coalition tread lightly and are considered in their approach. Even Labour’ harshest critics would admit that much good work has been done across many of our vital public services in the last 13 years – even a cursory glance at this month’s Prospect Magazine confirms it – it would be a travesty to see that undone on a point of political principle.  In the end it may sit with Vince Cable, the progressives ‘ace in the hole’ – to ensure that this baby doesn’t get thrown out with that proverbial bathwater. I wish him and all those across Government well and offer the words of Thomas Jefferson as a reflection: “Delay is preferable to error”.

A few years ago I read a fascinating article by the rather brilliant Edgar Schein on the topic of “Learning Anxiety”.

It links to one of my great personal and professional fascinations – how and why do we (humans, organisations, society) change/learn anew and how can that change/learning be best facilitated.

Schein’s premise is quite stark but simple:

  1. All change – personal or professional is fundamentally coercive and a source of anxiety
  2. Anxiety inhibits learning (change) but it is also necessary for learning (change) to occur at all
  3. There are two kinds of anxiety associated with learning: “learning anxiety” and “survival anxiety.” Learning anxiety comes from being afraid to try something new for fear that it will be too difficult, that we will look stupid in the attempt, or that we will have to part from old habits that have worked for us in the past.  Given the power of this anxiety, Schein believes none of us would ever try something new unless we experienced the second form of anxiety, survival anxiety—the horrible realization that in order to make it, you’re going to have to change
  4. The basic principle is that learning only happens when survival anxiety is greater than learning anxiety
  5. That can happen in two ways – drive survival anxiety up or drive learning anxiety down
  6. Driving survival anxiety up is the instinctive norm for firms today but ultimately can be self defeating. However, driving learning anxiety down is extremely hard in times of change
  7. While all change is fundamentally coercive, Schein notes it is important to distinguish between forcing people to learn something they can see the need to accept and asking them to learn something that seems questionable to them. There will always be learning anxiety, but if the employee accepts the need to learn, then the process can be greatly facilitated by good training, coaching, group support, feedback, positive incentives, and so on.

I thought this was fascinating so I a few years ago tried to draw up a little checklist of initiatives associated with training specifically, which I’ve seen on projects might be used to drive both anxiety types.

Shane and Schein

I intend to revisit this to create a more general framework across all aspects of the Change Enablement Model as opposed to just ‘training’ in this instance. But hopefully you can see the principle.

For those of us who work in change management and in particular Public Sector change management there is much to reflect on here

  • The anxieties associated with change/new learnings should not be underestimated and must be recognised
  • A key early battle is to gain buy in to or acceptance of the need/value of the change. This can be done through strong leadership, a solid business case, excellent communications/change branding and the operation of an influential and equipped change network
  • Equipping those tasked with delivering change with the necessary insights on the need for change and its associated benefits is important
  • It is preferable, if more challenging, to drive learning/change anxiety down than simply turn up the survival anxiety dial
  • All our interventions associated with supporting change should be considered and measured in the light of survival and learning/change anxiety.

However, in the Public Sector, the levers to increase ‘survival anxiety’ as Schein describes it: “by threatening people with loss of jobs or valued rewards” are extremely limited and not really feasible (all part of the Public Service contract) .

That’s often challenging but it’s also what makes working in the Public Sector so rewarding for me.  Some people (Consultants and Public Sector managers) find it difficult to come to terms with facilitating or motivating centrally imposed change programs without the lever of “survival anxiety” but that is why I believe if you can facilitate change in the Public Sector you can facilitate change almost anywhere. This simple observation is also the source of much of my respect for the Public Service colleagues I have worked alongside over the last ten years across 9-10 Government Departments. Each one of them is often tasked with “getting people to change” as a result of a remote policy initiative (often without a firm benefits case or motivational leadership from the top) but with a clear acceptance that they cannot drive ‘survival anxiety’ up as a means to facilitate change.

Is it any surprise therefore that so many large scale Government change programs fail – because there is limited ‘survival anxiety’?!  We rely in the main on the inherent commitment of our Public Servants to deliver Public Sector reform/change programs as part of their wider commitment to good Government. But the levers available to them to motivate their teams or those they rely upon over and above this are definitely limited.

Of course I am oversimplifying the case – persuasion and leading change are complex issues. But I wonder if, at least in part, could this be at the heart of at least some of the difficulties in bringing about large scale transformation in the Public Sector? Is this entirely unfair? I need to reflect, but something to ponder I hope you’d agree.

Still, I look forward to my next pitch or proposal to my clients. Having been asked how I expect to “bring people with me on the change journey” I intend to turn off the lights, pipe white noise into the room (or maybe some Jedward) and strobe the following message from Scheinon the projector (intersected with subliminal images of Dustin Hoffman being ‘flossed’ in Marathon Man:

“Like prisoners of war, potential learners (must) experience so much hopelessness through survival anxiety that eventually they (will) become open to the possibility of learning”

I think that should go down a treat.

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Change – a personal experience

Someone unwittingly asked me recently to provide an opinion on the building blocks of change – and particular the ‘human considerations’ in the context of corporate Change Programmes.

When I had finished what my old mentor Louise Seymour used to refer to as a ‘Shane-a-logue’ some hours later, the person in question had vacated the scene and the lights were out. But I had a model and as anyone who’s worked with Accenture knows – that’s all you need baby.

For me the success of any corporate change programme is ultimately dependent on the composite of each individuals personal change experience. If enough individuals can embrace and adapt to the change then a critical mass will have been achieved and success will be realised. But ultimately it’s about mobilising individuals. And here’s one of my own models for consideration – at a basic level – the challenges of supporting individual change.

Shane’s Individual Change Success Model

 In this I suggested (perhaps naively – it was 2005) that there are only two fundamental people related issues which need to be addressed as part of any organisational change effort:

  1. Capability
  2. Motivation

People can either be unwilling or unable to change and possibly both. Can they change? Will they change? The challenge is to be aware of the need to address both sides of the equation and develop suitable interventions in each area.

I need to build out this embryonic model to demonstrate the sort of change activities required to support an individual’s change capability and motivation for change. But for example under the Motivational ‘pull’ area called ‘Reinforcement’ I’d expect to see:

  • A well defined, accurate and immediately accessible Business/Benefits case for the change program which those impacted can refer to in their ‘acceptance’ that this change is necessary/positive
  • Inspiring and courageous leadership
  • Inspiring and courageous communication
  • An authoritative and equipped change network.

Sometimes I see Change Plans/Stratgies that are so incredibly complex they become impregnable to even the most seasoned of Change Management professionals, never mind those who are going to be asked to change and so I still take comfort in this model as a reminder that evolutionary psychology can tell us a lot about managing people through change – even when ‘a lot’ is just a little.

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