Change initiatives can be mentally and physically taxing because it is more challenging to be in a “mindful” state of learning something new than in a “mindless” state of doing the familiar. Physical or cognitive “nudges” help — not by forcing adoption of new ideas, but by creatively eliminating obstacles so that it happens naturally.


In 2011, Pelle G. Hansen and his students from Roskilde University came up with a litter-reducing nudge that they tested in Copenhagen. The team handed out 1000 candies to pedestrians. All the nearby streets, including garbage cans, ashtrays, and bike baskets were examined for the distinctive empty wrappers, and the wrappers discovered there were counted. Then the process was repeated, but in the second trial, a trail of green footsteps leading to nearby bins was stenciled on the ground. This led to a 46% decrease in the number of wrappers that were thrown on the ground. “The green footsteps certainly caught people’s attention,” says Hansen. “I think they create an atmosphere where the public feel more conscious about litter . . . and perhaps there is also a subconscious inclination to follow the feet.” Hansen’s remarks echo findings from a recent trial at an office block in Amsterdam that was designed to encourage visitors to take the stairs rather than power-hungry elevators. Beginning at the lobby entrance, members of Dutch environmental NGO Hivos laid a series of bright red strips along the floor leading up the stairs. During the 24-hour sample period that followed, the frequency of people entering the building who opted to take the stairs leapt by 70%.

The work environment can present a multitude of hurdles to new ideas. Some are obvious and people complain about them, but others are more subtle and often perceived as a normal part of doing business. Whether obvious or subtle, these hurdles can make the change process more difficult for those whom you are trying to convince.

Innovation efforts can be mentally and physically taxing because it is more time-consuming to be in the “mindful” state of learning something new than in the “mindless” state of doing the familiar. This can encourage skeptics to focus on the barriers as an excuse for not becoming involved.

A basic idea from ergonomics is that physical and cognitive “nudges” can help individuals think about and use something more easily. Innovative organizations apply this logic by designing and spreading affordances that make it easier for people to change. Many times a problem can be solved not by forcing others to adopt a new behavior, but by creatively eliminating the obstacles in the environment so the desired behavior happens naturally.

Changing the environment can be like drawing new painted lines that show how to drive down a highway. As Robert Cialdini, psychologist and author of Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, points out, “Our brains are designed to go into autopilot once we’ve established a routine that works for us.”

Change the environment in a way that will encourage people to adopt the new idea. Find out what is standing in the way. It may be hard for individuals to know and clearly articulate why they are struggling to make the change. Ask questions, listen carefully, and ask more questions. Look around — see what others are doing. Think about how the innovation could alter their daily routine and make things more difficult for them.

Look for barriers. Are they physical — that is, will the innovation create hurdles in the working environment? Are they systemic — that is, will the innovation require complications in the flow of work and how jobs are done? Are they something else? In his book To Sell Is Human, Dan Pink refers to this process as giving people an off-ramp.

Once you discover a stumbling block, ask for help to find ways to get past it. It can be difficult to uncover a creative solution. You need diverse input. Innovators may be a big help, but involve everyone who may be a good problem-solver. Find useful techniques and best practices that might spark ideas. You may want to present a variety of options for overcoming difficulties, but be aware that offering alternatives can sometimes confuse or burden people with too many options and work against you.

Make small changes instead of throwing out current approaches and completely replacing them with something new. Consider ways to piggyback on the way your organization is already working successfully. Let these little experiments help you help others move in the right direction. Iterate through the learning cycle — sustain momentum as you just do it, take a baby step, provide time for reflection, and celebrate small successes. These experiments should be part of your concrete action plan.

If your experiments are successful and you uncover ways to make life better for people, you can sell the new idea as a way to an easier path. Often people make long lists or increase process and monitoring to reach their goals. All of these efforts increase cognitive load; think instead of a change as a subtraction exercise. Remove tasks to make the environment simpler. The innovation should be a way to free up time and resources to improve lives instead of a heavier burden on already busy people.

Given that many obstacles in the environment can be too large for you to tackle, look for the low-hanging fruit. Move slowly and deliberately to avoid overwhelming everyone and defeating your efforts. Share successes and invite mentors who can help those who are still struggling.

Keep a sustained momentum. Occasionally an experiment will work instantly and sometimes it will fail, but the results always provide a learning opportunity. After a success, it may be tempting to relax and feel that your work is done. As the innovation spreads across the organization, however, new roadblocks are likely to appear — so you must always look for ways to make things easier for the new adopters. Continue to learn about the people and about your organization.

Building an environment that is more supportive of the new idea can help make the transition process quicker, easier and potentially even cheaper for everyone, including you. However, this approach is just one tool for paving a path toward change. By itself, it doesn’t usually result in complex change. The effect of creating an easier path can be short term so, when the novelty wears off, take baby steps by tackling another obstacle that is standing in the way of success.


by Linda Rising and Mary Lynn Manns , August 19, 2015

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