Regardless of our roles in life – leaders or front-line workers, parents or children – or whether we manage complicated information or more straightforward, manual tasks, almost everything seems to be changing so fast that it’s hard to keep up. Everywhere I turn, the economy, technology, workflows, and climates are changing. Yikes, does anything stay the same?
We seem to have trouble with change. We know the planet is getting too warm and weather patterns are unmistakably more unpredictable, but what are we doing about it? We know what we should eat, how much exercise we need, and the consequences of our current habits. But what is changing?
The literature about how we make choices interests me. One framework that boils down some of the psychological and market research into a simple way of thinking has helped me in my work and in my personal life.
The research points to some surprising findings that I think can help us choose differently. University of Virginia Psychologist Jonathan Haidt published a simple analogy in his book, The Happiness Hypothesis. He describes our emotional side as an elephant and our rational side as its rider. The rider can appear to be in control, but the elephant is so big that when there is disagreement, the elephant will always win.
Authors Chip Heath and Dan Heath apply this model to practical change in a book called Switch. Their hypothesis is that this three-part framework can be used in nearly any situation where behavior needs to change.
The research suggests that what looks like resistance on the part of people is often a lack of clarity. So the first part of change management is to direct the rider. The second part of change is to motivate the elephant. This is because what looks like laziness can be exhaustion. It turns out that willpower, by itself, is a measurably exhaustible resource. If our emotions do not also guide us in the same direction as our rational thinking, change is unlikely. Finally, change is more likely to happen if we see a clear path to that future we want to achieve. They call this "shaping the path.”
So how does this work? A powerful example, in which I participated in 2004, was the Institute of Healthcare Improvement's 100,000 Lives campaign. What needed to change was medical errors. Since the publication of To Err is Human in 1999, harm from medical errors seemed stubbornly resistant to change. So on December 14, 2004, Donald Berwick, MD gave a speech to 6,000 health care leaders at the annual IHI forum. I was in the audience.
With passion that Don is so good at unleashing, he said, "Here is what I think we should do. I think we should save 100,000 lives. And I think we should do that by June 14, 2006, [which is] 18 months from today. Some is not a number; soon is not a time. Here's the number: 100,000. Here's the time: June 14, 2006, 9 am."
Then, he introduced a mother whose child had been killed as a result of health care errors. The engagement of emotion was unmistakable. Tears were shed throughout the room.
On each chair in that room, Don had placed a one-page form which administrators could sign to commit to the 100,000 Lives campaign. And on the form there were 6 specific interventions hospitals could make to reduce medical errors.
Eighteen months later, at the exact time Don promised, he announced the results: 122,300 deaths were avoided.
Here's how this fits the framework:
1) Direct the rider – set an extraordinarily specific goal and time frame
2) Motivate the elephant – engage our emotions through the anguish of a real loss
3) Shape the path – pick up the paper, agree to the 6 interventions, and make a written commitment. Then do it.
By being deliberate about using these concepts, real change can happen. I recommend the book and using the framework.