Sunday, November 16, 2008

The change we need: Behavior change

Have you ever bought a fancy new gadget or tech item because you just knew that you would use it regularly, only to find it sitting idle and mocking you for the money you spent? Maybe it was a cappuccino machine that was going to save you from your daily Starbucks, or maybe it was some personal finance tracking software that would let you finally start keeping a budget. Maybe it was a treadmill that would get you to exercise more, or a set of instructional CDs that would finally allow you to learn Spanish.

I know I've been there, and I'm guessing every one of you has, as well. Why does this happen to us? I could be cynical and call it laziness, but in truth I think it's something more particular. It's an often-mistaken belief that technology can solve our problems - when in fact technology only makes it easier to solve the problems we are already committed to solving. The first step is still a change in mindset, followed by a strong dedication to making a change in outcome.

I've seen companies make this same mistake: putting in more modern time-tracking systems only to find that employees still lie about their time; building a robust internal webpage to increase communication only to find that no one checks it because they don't care what's on there; or on the flip side, blocking specific websites to prevent employees from wasting time on the internet, only to find that employees are infinitely creative and flexible about how to waste time.

This is why any new technology initiative must be accompanied by some serious thought about what behaviors must accompany the technology in order to be successful. On top of that is an even trickier question: as management (or in this case government) how do you get the workforce or public engaged in these behaviors? And how do you make it easy for them to get started?

I will explore some specific challenges on this front, and suggest some solutions in a series of posts over the next few weeks. Please stay tuned, and in the meantime here is one example to kick things off.

A commenter on a previous post, Meng, says that he has a good idea he wants to contribute to the Obama administration,
But I don't know how hard I would need to work, or even where to grassroots this thing, to get my idea to be heard.
This is probably a common scenario - there are thousands, if not millions, of Americans excited to contribute ideas to the new administration, but who don't see a path to get involved. This is also a scenario that has been tackled by corporations time and again - how to create a useful employee suggestion progam.

On the blog "Culture to Engage", Tim Wright explains the three criteria of a robust suggestion system, repeated here (without permission, but with attribution so I hope it's ok):

  1. Make the suggestion system valid and vital to your organization's culture. Elevate your suggestion system's importance. Recognize its importance orally and in print. Celebrate its contributors and their contributions. People believe in change once it's part of their language.
  2. Make the suggestion process simple to complete. Involve employees--those who will carry out the suggestion process--in determining the best series of steps, requirements, and procedures. You want people to want to make suggestions. People do what doesn't frustrate them.
  3. Make suggestion submission noteworthy. Celebrate the simple act of offering a suggestion by reinforcing the fact that a quantity of suggestions are necessary to produce the true quality suggestions. People enjoy being appreciated.
On the surface level, Meng was deterred from offering his suggestion to Obama's team because there is no clear suggestion process available - a failure to make the process simple to complete.

But the Obama team has a ways to go on all three of these points, and improvements on any of these aspects might have led Meng to submit his idea. After all, does have a simple process to submit your vision. From Meng's perspective, though, submitting an idea here doesn't satisfy his need to participate, because the website insufficiently celebrates the act of offering, and provides no evidence that the suggestions are a vital part of Obama's governing.

Fortunately, when you are President of the United States (or a CEO), a few small gestures can go a long way. Imagine if Obama used his weekly YouTube address to highlight how much he appreciates the ideas submitted through, perhaps even mentioning a few individuals by name. Getting your name mentioned in a presidential address certainly counts as celebration in my mind, and would demonstrate that Obama really wants to hear what we have to say.

To take things a step further, Obama's team could also list examples of how suggestions have actually influenced decision-making or policy within the administration, either in Obama's YouTube address or even just in a section on They key is to show that suggestions are a vital part of process. One of the challenges here will be sorting and finding the useful ideas worth considering - but if they aren't willing to put in the time for this, then they clearly aren't expecting any real utility from the suggestion process, which makes the whole thing a wasted exercise in the first place.

As always, I recognize that the transition is still in its early stages and I expect that the suggestion process will grow and develop over time. Look for future posts in this series to address other ways Obama can harness lessons in corporate culture change to bring more Americans into the governing process.

1 comment:

meng_mao said...

One recent effort that in mind has taken pains to make the suggestion process easy is Google's 10^100 project (Googol project? I dunno). I threw my one or two good ideas on there and let it be. I think part of the reason I did that is because I had an inkling of expertise in the domains I had the idea for.

When it comes to suggesting change to something as immensely complex and difficult as governing a large country, that just strikes me as a different ball game. In the same way I didn't really take Joe the Plumber's ideas (suggestions, if you will) seriously, I think it'll be tough to filter and intepret the millions of voices that will send an email or two to I know I wouldn't want that job.

Still -- I'm still dazed by how cool it is that there's even a site like Think about how totall different that is from the last administration.