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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Useful and valuable

An innovation happens when a truly valuable idea is both useful and valuable to the customer.