How to change people’s behavior by tweaking the environment

The interesting discussion we had about innovation being a matter of age brought up a lot of insights. One in particular, was that to breed innovation, an environment is more important than the age of the innovator. How this works is a little complicated to understand, but let me explain how a cognitive bias impedes us from seeing change coming from our environment, and then use some examples of how tweaking the environment makes change simple.

What looks like a person problem is often a situation problem

We are frequently blind to the power of situations. In their book Switch: How to change things when change is hard, the Heath Brother’s argue that when it comes to changing our own behavior, environmental tweaks beat self control every time. In it they mention a famous article by Stanford psychologist Lee Ross in which he surveyed dozens of studies in psychology and noted that people have a systematic tendency to ignore situational forces that shape other people’s behavior. He called this deep rooted tendency the “Fundamental Attribution Error“. The error lies in our inclination to attribute people’s behavior to the way they are rather than to the situation they are in.

You have to make it easier to do something you want done and harder not to

Peter Bregman wrote a great post on how your environment dictates your actions, where he explains how a simple move made all the difference for one of his clients:

One of my clients wanted everyone in the company to fill out a time sheet, and they were having a very hard time getting people to do it. Their mindset was compliance. They made it very clear that people didn’t have a choice. Everyone was required to do it. That worked for about half the employee population. The rest simply ignored it. The leaders were about to send out a memo saying no one would get paid unless the time sheet was handed in. But wait, I asked, do we know why they aren’t doing the time sheet? We assumed it was because people didn’t care. But we asked around anyway. Well, it turns out that people didn’t mind the idea of filling out a timesheet, but they were frustrated by the technology. The online system required people to go through a series of steps (a wizard) in order to put their time in. It was meant to help them, but it took longer and needlessly delayed them. Not by much — 10 seconds at most — but that was enough to dissuade 50% of the people from following through. Once we changed the form and the technology it was on, everyone started using it. They weren’t being defiant. They simply weren’t walking the 10 feet and four steps to the table. The solution isn’t to explain to people why they should take the walk or force them to take the walk. The solution is far simpler: move the table.

Also mentioned in Bregman’s post is the book Mindless Eating and the study of how if you give people bigger popcorn buckets, they’ll eat more popcorn! This book has won him a loyal following of dieters who swear by his directive: Shrink your dinnerware. Use smaller plates, bowls and cups. Because he knows that if we use big plates, we feel obligated to cover them with food. A simple tweak is all it takes for people to eat less.

Tweaking the environment is about making the right behavior a little bit easier and the wrong behavior a little bit harder. It’s that simple. For an example think about Amazon’s 1-Click ordering. Amazon’s site designers have simply made a desired behavior – you spending money on their site – a little bit easier. They’ve lowered the bar to a purchase as low as possible, and by doing this, they’ve generated millions of dollars in incremental revenue.

From dodging customers to accepting them with open arms

An example of how a company that hosts people site’s changed it’s culture from ‘denial of service’ to become known for ‘fanatical support’ by making a simple tweak to the environment is Rackspace. Initially they didn’t pride themselves on customer service, they actually saw customer service as costs to be minimized. The more roadblocks that could be erected to keep the phone from ringing, the better the profits would be.

This is was Rackspace’s modus operandi until one furious customer who had been sending emails and leaving voice mails managed to track down company founder Graham Weston. Surprised, Weston asked the customer to forward the email’s he’d sent and promised to look into the matter. After viewing the emails he had the revelation that his business was not going to be sustainable by dodging its customers.

Rackspace soon set out transform itself from a company that dreaded customer support to a company that was passionate about support. He posted an aspirational banner on the walls: Rackspace gives fanatical support. Everybody embraced it but it had to be backed up with action.

What was the most dramatic action that really changed it all? Weston removed the call queue. Without the queue system there is no safety net. The phone would keep ringing until someone picked up. So when he threw out the queue system it became impossible to dodge the customer. This move was significant because by 2008, Rackspace was named one of the best places to work by Fortune and had passed AT&T as the highest grossing firm in the industry.

People didn’t change, the environment did

As you can see from these examples people’s character didn’t change, the environment changed. It became harder for people to follow an old behavior and in it’s place a new behavior became easier.

While none of these examples explicitly involves innovation, they do point out that if we want change a desired behavior we can start by tweaking the environment. This is why I like to mention W.L. Gore as an example of an innovative company that removed the biggest innovation obstacle of all, the typical management structure. Why is this important? Because if we want people to do something (like be more creative) we can tweak an environment for that to happen.

What if we want to replicate the creative collision that happens in cities such as San Francisco, New York and Hong Kong? You call Charles Landry, who knows what makes these cities magnets of talent and then helps other cities design their infrastructure to become hotbeds of creative talent.

Takeaway: No doubt it takes time and effort to create change by tweaking an environment, but it’s a lot more simple than asking/telling/waiting for people to change their minds. I’ve left a lot of examples out, but I certainly encourage you to read Switch, because quite honestly it’s that good!


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  • Great post Jorge, as usual. I also think Switch is a book everyone should read – regardless of career, age, etc…and I also think it should be given to all expectant parents but it was a ‘game-changer’ for me in so many ways.

    • Thanks Deb. Great point, it’s definitely one of those books that changes how one thinks.

  • Ned Kumar

    The points you make are rightfully important and I completely agree. The lesson here is that managing change is about understanding the current behavior, understanding the behavior you would like to have and then assessing the environmental and other contextual factors to affect that behavior change.

    As you mention in your post, some ways to affect successful behavior change is by changing variables in the environment. I would like to introduce another aspect to change in behavior – the readiness to change. A very important fact to understand [especially in the corporate world] is that changes in behavior are rarely discrete and so we need to understand the current state and the readiness and motivation for a change to effectively plan a change process tailored to the needs of the various stakeholders.

    Last year I had given a talk at a conference on this very topic and I borrowed a model from psychiatry/health to explain the readiness to change. The model, Transtheoretical Model of Change (or TTM for short), was initially developed by Prochaska and DiClemente while studying how people addicted to smoking were able to give up smoking. The model has five stages and it is interesting to understand these as they closely related to situations faced in the business world.

    Precontemplation – In this stage people are either not aware that a problem exists (ignorance) or does not believe it applies to them – and so there is no intention to change. If pushed to change, defenses go up and resentment develop.
    + Intervention: The focus should be on creating and/or increasing level of awareness of the issues and the need for change. At this stage, care should be taken not to force a change.

    Contemplation – Folks at this stage have some problem awareness and the start of searching for new information. In other words, they show a willingness to explore but are not sure if it is worth the effort to change.
    + Intervention: The focus here should be on percieved benefits of the change. A good idea would be to personalize risk factors to make it more meaningful why it is good to change behavior.

    Preparation – People at this stage have made a decision to change but not sure ‘how to’ get there. This is the best place to provide ‘client’ with possibilities and let them choose the method.
    + Intervention: The key here is to focus on making the individual or group capable and efficient through the introduction of appropriate tools and technologies.

    Action – Finally, the individual or group in question is committed to change and tries the new behavior. However, chances of relapse if unhappy or influenced by lack of success. Key is to make everybody understand that change does not happen at once but sometimes require recurring attempts.
    + Intervention: Reinforce the change through continuous coaching and use appropriate rewards to encourage and give confidence.

    Maintenance – And finally, the new behavior is set and comes naturally. Key is to develop a plan to avoid situations that may cause relapse to an earlier behevior.
    + Intervention: Total focus on encouragement and reward to overcome any intertia from slowness of results from the change.

    The bottom line here is that before changing the environment, we should understand how ready the target is to make the change so as to increase the probability of a successful transition.

    Enjoyed the read – great post.


    • Hi Ned,

      Thanks for the valuable comment.

      I’ve never heard of this model before and I do agree that as things get more complex a different approach must be taken, thus consider readiness. Though I’m more inclined to a gung-ho approach, now you got me thinking if I’d known of your approach before my outcomes would’ve been different 😉

      Oh well, it’s always great to learn new stuff 🙂

      Thanks again for the valuable comment, I feel enlightened.

  • Ralph Ohr

    Great post, Jorge!

    I think you have very well pointed out that environment determines behaviour and decision making. Therefore, changing the enviroment is a very important lever for stimulating behavioral change, as impressively indicated in your examples.

    Obviously, people’s decisions and behavior are significantly driven by their environment, situational forces and external context. As you mentioned, we follow our inclination that people are driven by a general personality.

    But I do think that people are also influenced by their “internal context”, i.e. assumptions, perception of meaning etc. I’m wondering whether working on both “levels” can make change projects even more sustainable. I’d assume that people’s support for a change increases if they understand objectives and the “bigger picture” / vision. This “unfreeze” of existing traits and mindsets is a quite challenging matter of communication and leadership. I also presume this “unfreeze” is most likely related to what Ned claims by “readiness for change”.

    I definitely agree with you that preparation for change without correspondingly preparing the environment towards the targeted direction leads to a high likelihood of failure.

    Your post made me also thinking about innovation in general. If decisions and behavior are really situational and contextual, what is the basis for innovation? We often talk about ‘needs’ or ‘jobs-to-be-done’ and assume these to be quite stable in a considered context. Is this really the case? How can we include situational forces in this consideration? I think, innovation gets quite complex if we try to take situational dependencies into account. Anyway, just thinking…;-)

    Looking forward to your reply.

    Cheers, Ralph

    • Hi Ralph,

      I completely agree with you that ‘internal context’ also plays a role in influencing’s people’s behavior and would add that giving people a say in the vision (empowerment) is also a lever to change behavior, as opposed to just telling them where we’re going and why they should care. I think this is where Ned’s ‘readiness for change’ model comes in.

      You also bring up a great point, how are situational forces taken into account in the innovation process?

      Adrian Ott (@exponentialedge) added another angle for taking a persons situation into consideration, her time-onomics manifesto ( She compares the product-centric view and customer-centric view (needs) with her time-value centric approach where time is a situational force that shapes behavior. It’s worth a read!

      I’ve also been noticing this trend and have been thinking about it for some time now but she put it together quite nicely! How does time affect people’s behavior and how does it factor in when developing products and services?

      As far as how situational forces fit into innovation, here’s my take: Innovation = change. Most of the tactics we learn are about how to influence through communication. Yet I don’t think we’ve payed enough attention to how an environment influences behavior. I had this epiphany a few years ago and set out to test exactly that ( This project was put into play but never got where to where I envisioned it. It ended up becoming a big fat failure for me mostly because I didn’t get the support needed and because I got pushed out by greedy politicians who wanted the spotlight. While this not an ‘innovation’, I saw it as an experiment in behavior change by altering the environment. Still think it could have worked!

      The point here I think is that if we think of innovation as change (from one state to another), then we need to consider and identify the levers that make whatever change we’re looking for possible. And like you said, this gets more complex!

      I’m going to stop now and think more about the questions you raise 🙂

      Does this make sense? Look forward to your thoughts 😉


      • Ned Kumar

        It is true that “innovation=change” — and it is a simplistic concept. It is “how innovation takes place” that is a complex subject (at least my take).

        And this is where all the factors we talk about come into play – environment, experience, time, internal context etc. Here is the visual I have — we could all be working with the same meat, vegetables, spices, and herbs and might even have the same experience, background, equipment (kitchen) and time available to cook but that still do not guarantee that our dishes will taste the same.

        And here in lies the complexity with innovation. The “ingredients” and factors like time does play an important role. However, it goes beyond that. Under certain situations (e.g an emergency), some folks are more successful at leveraging what they have to come out with an innovative solution where as some “freeze” and even though they may have the same ingredients, they are not able to combine them in any form or fashion to address the situation.

        Anyway, this is always an interesting topic 🙂


        • @NedKumar,

          Well said! Glad we all agree on what it means and I also agree with you that more important is to focus on how it happens.

          Thanks for adding your thoughts 🙂


      • Ralph Ohr

        Hi Jorge,

        first of all, thanks for the pointer to @exponentialedge ‘s interesting post – I already noticed it. Time is a situational force, indeed and highly influences decisions and bahavior.

        Further, I agree with you: Innovation is related to change – more or less, depending on the type of innovation. I think, on an individual level, it’s also about change in contextual value. One of my favourite posts is this one by @ireneclng on ‘Value co-creation’:

        The point for me is that value is co-created through a combination of offering (external) and individual valuing (internal) of this offering. This valuation process results in a certain outcome/experience. Which factors determine the valuation process? That’s how situational forces come into play. If we go one step further by saying, innovation is related to increased value, we should actually be required to take situational forces during the valuation process into consideration. For me, this is how innovation is linked to psychology.

        What do you think?

        Cheers, Ralph

        • Hi Ralph (@ralph_ohr),

          Thanks for the link. It’s interesting and it got me thinking about my own behavior when I go to places or my interaction with products.

          Also, I agree with your statement that innovation is related to increased value. And that only strengthens the idea of ‘experience innovation’. See this NYTimes article ( of the similarities between IBM and Apple, and how Apple puts emphasis on ‘user experience’.

          After reading your comment and the post, I saw a connection between that and Apple’s approach which is to influence behavior towards a desired ‘experience’. The question for me is: Is Apple even thinking about value co-creation? In other words as you say, are they considering situational forces in their innovation process?

          Interesting stuff BTW, you’ve given me ideas to chew on 🙂

          Let me know what you think.


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