Creating Traction

In the (in)famous Stanford Prison Experiment in August 1971, twenty-four volunteer college students were selected for an experiment to observing human behaviour in a ‘mock’ prison. Twelve of the students were made guards and twelve were assigned as prisoners. The experiment was designed to last two weeks but was stopped after 6 days. The students morphed so much into their situation and their roles within it, that by the end of the 6 days there had been a cell blockade, a hunger strike, mistreatment, psychological abuse, solitary confinement and punishments in the form of confiscated bedding, dehumanisation (prisoners were identified only by their numbers) etc. In short, the random selection of student ‘prisoners’ started acting like prisoners and the random selection of ‘guards’ started acting like guards until the study had to be stopped.

This has since been held up as a quite stark example of how a situation can impact human behaviour. So if you want to change human behaviour, just change the situation.  We know for example that increasing the area of healthy food on display in a school canteen leads to more healthy food being consumed. Or having to opt-out of organ donation leads to higher rates of donation than opting-in for different countries.

Its this element, the situation, that is often under-designed as a factor in change initiatives in the modern workplace.

It seems to me that in this time of pulsating social feeds, avalanches of news stories and pile upon pile of expert advisors on any subject you can imagine, that we seem to have all this commentary and advice that is dangerously detaching from (A) proven study and (B) application to real world situations.

Let’s take innovation as an example. Most groups report that they have participated in some form of brainstorming or ideation sessions that were great. And let’s be honest, an innovation high at the end of such a day is very uplifting. Then you return to ‘work’ the next day, reopen the flood gates and all your little sparks and flames are quickly extinguished. How are we applying the vast array of studies on getting change to stick to our innovation or disruption efforts? Or have we been too focussed on the idea generation piece for too long?

It’s highly likely that generating ideas are not your kryptonite. You know you can get them if you can get a day out from the office and follow a process. What you may be missing is traction on these ideas, Traction on change.

Is getting behavioural change of self, of others and of a business the next big hack we need?

How are you feeling about your own or your organisations pace of change? Are you keeping up?…accelerating ahead?… or slipping behind?

We know the Digital Revolution has sped everything up, so how do we accelerate the change we choose?

In the book SWITCH by Chip and Dan Heath, they propose compellingly and convincingly that there are three aspects to change

  • People’s analytical thinking (the rider)
  • People’s emotional thinking (the elephant)
  • Situational Factors (the path)

All three are important and we’ve seen the power of ‘3’ already above.

If you are asking yourself to change, or you’re are working to alter the direction of others or people are trying to get you on board something new, you will be asking –

  • What are the reasons for the change? (analytical)
  • Why should I care? (emotional)
  • How is the environment I am in operating in, with me or against me? (situation)

We all know we should eat a balanced, nutritious diet. You know if you say that to someone in your family or network you will get the double eye roll, the double head nod or the double head shake.  It’s hard to action that advice though, no matter where your unsuspecting listener is starting from.

We know being advised to drink 8 glasses of water a day is more helpful than ‘drink more water’ (analytical) or even eat and drink better. We know not having soft drink in the fridge makes it more likely for water to be consumed (situational) and we know we’ll buy-in more (emotionally) if we watch a water expert demonstrate the impacts of poor hydration in a TED Talk.

To be a game changer in any field, you need to be good at change. If you are working to impact innovation in an organisation here are three pieces of advice to make a material difference to your ability to get traction.

  1. Treat your target for change as you would a customer
    • Speak to the benefits to the change in their terms (appealing to their analytical, what’s-in-it-for-me thinking)
    • Provide other ‘returns’ to the change you are asking for – how do you want their contribution, collaboration and creativity to be applied to improve your original concept? Don’t just pass edicts and try to control to strict process.
  2. Get your environment, the situation, right for change
    • Provide some freedom to choose, autonomy to implement and a ‘sense of team’ – everyone wants to belong to something greater than themselves. How does your overarching purpose drive that?
    • How will time be freed up, management support manifest and bureaucracy be short-cut? Three elements of the situational status quo that is more deadly to change and innovation than anthrax.
  3. Start with small initiatives, get some small wins and look for early examples of success. What can you learn from these? How can you propagate the learning? SWITCH calls these Bright Spots.

There is so much research and sound advice to help us on how to influence human behaviour and all the foibles we have that lead to fast but often flawed decisions. We just need to tap into this rich vein of study more from the people who’ve made it easy for us to interpret it. Here are some great places to start

Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely

Game Changer by Jason Fox

Selfish, Scared and Stupid by Dan Gregory and Kieran Flanagan

Nudge by Richard H. Thaler

Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman





Paul Broadfoot develops Intrapreneurship in forward thinking organisations focused on launching new areas of growth. By helping companies to identify, develop and activate their Intrapreneurs with Business Model Innovation frameworks,  Paul can help you create new markets and deliver on the promise of corporate innovation. He is Author of the book Xcelerate; innovate your business model, disrupt your market and fast-hack into the future. Paul speaks at conferences and events to get people thinking differently about ‘future business’ for their roles and their companies, inspiring them to act.


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