Small But Mighty

My thinking on the organisational change drifts ever further from Big Bang theory in favour of organic, evolutionary models. I am absolutely ready to ditch the Heroic Leader model; I don’t care if you have a colossal asshole like Steve Jobs or a beloved saint like … you know literally… the current Pope, the vision of a single leader isn’t sufficient to change culture unless backed by a whole raft of tools, people, and influences. Once you walk away from Event- or Leader- driven culture change models, however, that leaves you stuck squarely in the ‘organisation as an organism’ space.

Which gets me to the topic du jour: nudge theory. A nudge is a deliberate action to put a tiny bit of emotional and intellectual energy into a story that you want to grow over time within a group of people. Assuming you’ve defined your big cultural throughline correctly, you’ll have several key stories that you want to develop as a mechanism to gradually shape organisational behaviour and culture. Big events are only going to build awareness, maybe a wee bit of desire. To get people to change – and more importantly to make them STAY changed – we need to keep reminding them, keep gently pushing them in the right direction.

 I like the dictionary definition of nudge: a light touch or push. I think of it as gently spinning Tibetan prayer wheels to put energy into a system. Now this is not entirely Toast bullshit… it’s considerably more developed then that. As usual, Wikipedia provides a good place to get started on the topic:

 “Nudge is a concept in behavioural science, political theory and behavioural economics which proposes of groups or individuals. Nudging contrasts with other ways to achieve compliance, such as education, legislation or enforcement.”

 There are literally books on this topic. There are also some pretty good YouTube videos and, as usual, Freakonomics has done a few outstanding podcasts. If you want to dive deep, it’s basically an intellectual diving pool. Google “nudge theory” and enjoy.

 A nudge can take a lot of forms. There’s a great graphic on this page with basic categories of nudges. You can deliver it as a conversation, an icon, a social media post, a physical change, a slogan. Generally it involves either slightly increasing the friction towards actions and behaviours you do not want people to take and/or decreasing the friction towards actions and behaviours you want to encourage. Let me give you a classic physical nudge example:

A senior leader surfaced in a coaching session that while he knew that exercise was a method he used to reduce stress, recently he found himself working out in the morning less and less. Everyone knows they should exercise more, and he expressed the belief that if he could just get himself back into the gym, he would exhibit less negative behaviours at work.

 First, let’s applaud the self-awareness here. I can’t tell you how important it is to be able to a) admit you’re being an asshole; b) look at your ‘normal’ routines versus those you are currently engaged in; and c) make the connection. But then, think about me sitting there trying to figure out a way to help him be a better leader by getting him to get his ass to the gym.

 It turned out this was an easy problem to solve actually. Imagine a line with three consecutive points:

                  A (Parking) ----------- B(Office) ----------- C (Gym)

Mr. Leader dutifully packed his business clothes and dressed in gym clothes every morning before driving to work. He would park (A) to walk to his gym (C). The problem is as he walked past the office (B) he would routinely duck in to ‘just check one thing’. Nek minute, too late to workout and time to change for the first meeting.

The magic nudge?

           A (old park) --------- B (Office) -----------C (Gym) ---------- D (New park)

 All I did was tell him to park in a different location. With no other changewhatsoever, he upped his exercise game to 4 days a week. >POOF< Please note, he’s still a bit of a dick… but he’s a healthier dick. Look, there is a limit to what exercise can do for your personality.

 The best nudges are actually the easiest ones. I’m increasingly of the opinion that the more effort I put into any individual nudge, the lower the ROI. In this vein, company social media is a god send. It gives us a really extraordinary ability to manipulate people at very little effort or cost. The real power of nudges, however, regardless of their type or delivery mechanism is that they feel in the moment to the targeted group of people as spontaneous, organic, natural and relatively painless. A nudge is not a giant call to action or a large event. It is a small, gentle, almost subversive little bump.

 And surely by now you’re already looking suspiciously at this Voice Over entry itself and asking yourself, “Hmm… is Toast nudging me? What’s her objective?” I worry about this topic, frankly, and have questioned myself whether explicitly talking about the topic both on Voice Over and with my internal business peers can actually undermine my nudging efforts. I think inherently, if when know we are being nudged – no, let’s call it a spade a spade – manipulated, are more resistant to the objective? Knowing how the sausage is made, do we become vegetarians?

 This is definitely a risk. If you are responsible for leading or influencing organisational change within a community either at work or in your private life, I urge you to be careful with how above the line you go with nudges as a tool in your leading through change toolkit. The power of a structured, explicit sequence of nudges over a long period of time is truly awesome; I have used this technique effectively through enough iterations that I can promise you it works. It is, frankly, the only way I know that consistently returns a changed core behaviour. However, if everyone knows you are doing it, the magic might disappear forcing you to fall back on bribes, coercion, and outdated leadership models. So sshh. Of all my Voice Over entries, I want this one to have the least circulation.

 “Great things are done by a series of small things brought together.” ~ Vincent Van Gogh