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Shrink the change to motivate the elephant

Thursday, 21 July 2011 13:57
Written by Leanne Ansell-McBride

Ever had a great idea or significant change strategy that was undermined by the fear and scepticism of others? We expect senior leaders to lead their organisations strategically and position them for the future. We encourage senior leaders to develop the grand plan for change. Whilst the leader may have little difficulty in imagining this fabulous future state, too often the front line struggles to understand what it means or sees it as too big a step which is too hard to take.

Professor Chip Heath from Stanford University and Dan Heath from Duke University, in their latest book "Switch – how to change things when change is hard", encourage leaders to "shrink the change" to create early successes, suggesting "when you engineer early successes, what you're really doing is engineering hope". This in turn helps people to overcome inbuilt resistance to and fear of change.

Heath and Heath build on Jonathan Haidt's analogy that the emotional side of our mind is like a headstrong elephant, and the rational side of our mind is like a rider guiding the elephant. The rider holds the reins and seems to be the leader, but in reality an emotional elephant can easily overpower a rational rider. To ensure harmony they suggest in any change effort you need to:

Direct the rider

  • ‘Mine’ instances of success to determine what made them work
  • Script the critical moves
  • Point to the destination

Motivate the elephant

  • Find the emotion
  • Shrink the change
  • Grow your people

Shape the path

  • Align the environment
  • Build habits
  • Rally the herd

The VLDP along with Global Achievers Company is delighted to offer a special rate to a forthcoming seminar with Professor Chip Heath on his book “Switch – how to change when change is hard” in Melbourne on 2 December. Between now and 5 August you and your team can attend this half day event for only $395 inc GST. That is a $200 off the regular price. Register by calling 1300 309 039 or on line.

Chip and Dan Heath provide many great case studies where change leaders have successfully ‘motivated the elephant’ in their latest book “Switch – how to change when change is hard”. Shrinking the change, one of the key techniques to driving motivation, helps the elephant to see that change is possible and provides payoff for each small step. Tips to shrink the change include: providing a ‘headstart’; lowering the bar; lighting the fire; empowering advocates; and making advances visible by celebrating small milestones.

Give people a headstart

"One way to motivate action …is to make people feel as though they're already closer to the finish line than they may have thought" suggest the Heaths. To support their hypothesis they provide a simple case study where a car wash ran a 'loyalty card' promotion. The car wash gave one set of customers a loyalty card entitling them to get a free wash after eight washes. They gave a second set of customers, at the same car wash, a different loyalty card where they needed to collect ten stamps for ten washes to get their free wash. Both cards were essentially the same, requiring customers to buy eight washes to get their ninth wash free, but in the second case the customers were given a partially completed card with two stamps – 20% of the way towards their final wash. A few months after the promotion only 19% of the ‘eight stamp customers’ had earned a free wash compared to 34% of the 'head start group'. A simple strategy and the lesson from the Heaths is "If you're leading a change effort, you better start looking for those first two stamps to put on your team's cards. Rather than focusing solely on what's new and different about the change to come, make an effort to remind people what's already been conquered".

Lower the bar

One supposed approach to motivating people to deliver is to lift the bar every time a pinnacle in performance is achieved. However, in large scale change this can have an opposite demotivating effect, with the Heaths suggesting "that's exactly the wrong instinct if you want to motivate a reluctant Elephant".

Instead, find ways to break the change into small, seemingly insignificant phases to help people start moving in the direction you want them to go. "Big changes come from a succession of small changes. It's OK if the first changes seem almost trivial". This is the essence of 'shrinking the change'. The objective is "to get the Elephant moving, even if the movement is slow at first".

Light the fire

Another case study examined in "Switch" is the controversial debt-fighting technique known as the "Debt snowball" where debtors are encouraged to make the minimum payments for all debts and apply any extra to the smallest debt first, regardless of interest rates or other factors. Although in a rational sense a person would be better off financially if they pay down high interest debt first, this approach works with the 'elephant' and often has more success. By paying the smaller debts first, a person sees fewer bills more quickly as small individual debts are paid off, thus giving ongoing positive feedback on their progress towards eliminating their debt.

The Heaths suggest "When you start the Debt Snowball and in the first few days pay off a couple of little debts … it lights your fire … you need quick wins to get fired up. And getting fired up is super important".

No need for structural power - empower the advocates

Change is hard, but becomes a greater challenge when you're required to lead reform across multiple organisations or divisions without 'structural control'.

However, this is exactly what Steven Kelman, from the Harvard University Kennedy School of Government, did when he took on the role as Head of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy (OFPP) for the US Federal Government. Although he was asked to lead the major procurement reform, he had limited structural power with a small central team and purchasing decisions made by an army of 1,600 purchasing agents in dozens of large federal agencies.

In an interview for his book "Unleashing change: a study of organizational change in government" Professor Kelman suggests "the challenge for leaders in organisations is to energise, activate and improve the position of the change advocates in their organisations to get change started". You need to "get those people moving and get them more powerful than they otherwise would be".

Kelman and his team used surveys and interviews to identify what he called the "change vanguard" – those who want reform. He also used his surveys and interviews to identify what most irked those in the vanguard, and set to tackle these reforms first. The Heaths describe these as early victories "that would be fast achievable and visible" and aimed to "get their Elephants moving with an easy mission".

The Brookings Institution, a not-for-profit public policy and research organisation in Washington, DC, conducted a study which assessed a number of significant government change initiatives that had been conducted during the same time. This study recognised Kelman's procurement reform as the only successful initiative: "Kelman turned an unspeakable level of bureaucratic inertia into demonstrable forward momentum. Give years later, in an internal survey, 70 percent of frontline employees said that they were proponents of procurement reform".

To watch the interview with Professor Kelman speaking of the reforms click here.

In August, ELP participants Alice Sidhu and Andrew Loader will be discussing the major reforms to Victorian public service procurement processes in a peer learning session for their colleagues.

Focus on small, attainable milestones and the next step

Once you have the elephant moving, the final technique suggested in "Switch" to ensure you make the change shrink is to celebrate the small, attainable milestones. The Heaths suggest "once people are on the path and making progress, it's important to make their advances visible".

Whilst the big picture is important to us as leaders, helping our teams to focus "attention on small milestones that are attainable and visible rather than on the eventual destination, which may seem very remote" is often better strategy. This helps people to keep their sense of moving forward, and is even more important because change is not "a steady, inevitable march toward victory. It won't simply be an unbroken string of small wins … More typically, you take one step forward and 1.3 steps back and 2.7 steps forward and then 6 steps to the side".

Click below to watch a video from Dan Heath discussing “shrinking the change”.


Alternatively download a 17 minute podcast where Chip and Dan Heath share more tips from their book "Switch - how to change things when change is hard":


1 comment

  • Comment Link Leanne Wednesday, 17 August 2011 11:08 posted by Leanne

    Quick update: Professor Chip Heath is having lunch with the VLDC Board and SELP program participants on Tuesday 6 September to discuss his latest book "Switch"

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