Moving an Elephant...

How do you get people to change their behaviour? Who’d have thought it would involve a rider, an elephant and a path….


So you’re in charge of running a new initiative. The objective is to make sure all staff members take some fresh air and exercise each lunchtime, rather than just eating at their desk.  You’ve done your research, and have identified and understood all the benefits that come with this. You’ve implemented a programme in which you have communicated the benefits clearly to your workforce, using lots of data and stats, and provided a range of incentives for them to change their behaviour.  Three months into the project, your ‘lunchtime exercisers’ have gone up from 22% of the company to just 25%, after an initial spike to 30%.  You are starting to tear you hair out and asking yourself the question, what more should I be doing??!

The answer – take some time out, leave your hair alone for a short while, and have a read of this…..

The Rider, the Elephant, and the Path

There are many behaviour change theories and models in popular circulation.  The government even set up its own behavioural insights team back in 2010, nicknamed the ‘nudge unit’, the world’s first government institution dedicated to the application of behavioural sciences. 

In this blog we are going to examine the ‘Switch’ model formulated by Dan and Chip Heath in their book “Switch: How change things when change is hard”. The model is easily accessible and of great practical application, and it is worth noting that the EAST model of behavioural change (formulated by the nudge unit) has many common factors and recommendations.   

We love the fact that one of the recommendations for the book states “The one book to read if you are trying to change the world”!

The Heath brothers (backed by huge amounts of empirical evidence) maintain that in order to successfully bring about change, three different elements need to be in place.  You need to:

  • direct the rider;

  • motivate the elephant; and

  • shape the path.

In simple terms, the rider equates to the rational side of human beings and the elephant equates to our emotional side. No matter how much the rider might be aware of what the outcome needs to be, if their elephant is not motivated to get there, it’s not going to happen. Similarly, no matter how motivated the elephant is to get to the destination, if the rider doesn’t know how to get there, it will simply be churning up the ground in the same spot.  Even where both rider and elephant are ready to get going, if the terrain is obstructive, getting to the destination will be extremely hard, meaning the rider and elephant are more likely to give up.

Lunchtime exercisers

Let’s go back to our lunchtime exercisers. 

The first step is to work out whose behaviour needs to be changed? In this instance, it’s a fairly straightforward answer – the staff of the organisation. The next step would generally be to work out ‘what is the outcome we are aiming for?’ Now the problem with this approach is that it can lead to some fairly woolly outcomes, such as ‘increase the physical health and wellbeing of our staff’, or ‘increase the productivity of our staff.’  Good intentions and planned outcomes, but problematic, as you will see.

So let’s start with the Rider 

As noted above, the Rider needs direction.  The Heath brothers break this down into three elements – Follow the Bright Spots, Script the Critical Moves, and Point to the Destination.

Starting with the bright spots, whilst human nature often tends to focus on what isn’t working, this takes the opposite approach. Let’s do our research and find out who among the workforce currently exhibit the behaviours we are aiming for – ie getting fresh air and exercise each lunchtime.  Understand why they are, what drives them to do so, what the ‘norms’ of this group are, and then reproduce the practices used by the bright spots.  This allows you to utilise a ‘native’ solution – ie one already being used within the organisation, and allows you to make changes when you don’t have it all figured out in advance. 

What about scripting the critical moves? Rather than giving general advice about fresh air and the need to take some time out at lunch time, work out and script some critical moves and give some crystal clear guidance. These might include for example 1. Turn off your computer for 45 minutes during the hours of 12 and 2pm each day. 2. Eat your lunch outside the office building.

Finally, in order to successfully direct the rider, you need to point to the destination. This involves ambition or goal setting, but it needs to be a compelling destination so that the Rider doesn’t get lost in analysis.  The Heath brothers use the expression ‘a destination postcard.’ So in this instance it might be something like “An organisation that takes health and well-being seriously” (as you will see this also impacts on shaping the path as well).

So the Rider knows where it’s going and how to get there, but what if the Elephant doesn’t want to go? The Rider might be able to force it some of the way, but eventually the Elephant will prove too strong and just head back in the direction it wants to go. 

So how do we go about motivating the elephant?  

The key here is that whilst people often assume that change comes about via a process of Analyse-Think-Change, you actually need to think of it in this way: See-Feel-Change.  You have to ‘find the feeling’. A great example used in the book is of a procurement director who finds that his organisation sources latex gloves from 49 different suppliers, all of whom charge different prices. He knows that he needs to rationalise this down to one supplier, and preferably the cheapest. His board know this. But the procurement director can’t get the board to focus on this and actually agree to do anything. So what does he do? He walks into a meeting one day and piles onto the table 49 pairs of gloves, each one with a label on showing how much they had cost. That did the trick….the Board’s collective elephant was motivated, and change could happen.

Another important concept for motivating the elephant is the need to shrink the change.  A sense of progress is critical as the elephant is easily spooked, demoralised and derailed. So with our lunchtime exercisers, how could we shrink their change? Build in some small and quick wins for them (possibly the first target being to get out for two lunchtimes a week) so that you can engineer some early success, and make sure that these are recognised and publicised. 

Finally for the elephant, it’s important to grow your people.  This works in two ways – first by creating the aspiration of a new identity.  When you think about the people whose behaviour needs to change, ask yourself whether they would agree with this statement: “I aspire to be the kind of person who would make this change.” Second, the staff need to accept that it will be hard, and there will be setbacks on the way. In short, they will need a ‘growth mindset’ (a whole other story in itself!). To summarise: the central challenge in motivating the elephant, and keeping it moving forward, is to find the feeling, not just the knowledge, and then build its confidence, so it knows it is capable of conquering the change.

The importance of shaping the path

There is a key concept in psychology called the ‘Fundamental Attribution Error.’ This relates to our inclination to attribute people’s behaviour to the way they are, rather than the situation they are in.  The Heaths use a fabulous example of popcorn eating at the cinema to illustrate this point.

Coming back to our lunchtime exercisers, what are we talking about here? Once again, there are three elements. The first trick is to tweak the environment.  The aim is to make the right behaviour a little bit easier, and the wrong behaviours a bit harder.  Basic illustration – banks got fed up with people leaving their cards in cashpoints, so they changed it so that no money is dispensed until the person has taken out their card.  For our organisation how about sending all members of staff a personalised email reminder at 12pm that they need to take their 45 minute break? What about giving everyone a map of local and reasonably priced eateries? The second trick is to build habits.  Habits are, in essence, behavioural autopilots, and they allow good behaviours to happen without the Rider taking charge (and this is extremely helpful in making sure that the Rider doesn’t get tired out). This can include environmental tweaks, so how about our organisation’s canteen stops serving proper meals, but just serves drinks and small snacks.  Another way to look at this is to get the staff to build in their own action triggers.  Ie let’s say that, within a team, they have a weekly team meeting on Mondays at 11am. This normally goes on for an hour. If the agree that they will all take their lunch break straight after the meeting, this is an action trigger that then produces a habit.  The final piece of the path puzzle is rallying the herd. When you are leading an elephant down an unfamiliar path, the chances are that it will follow the herd.  So how do you create a herd?  Think of laughter stooges planted in the audience of a theatre…. Think of ‘seeded’ tip jars. Think of hotel signs saying ‘75% of our guests re-use their towels’. Behaviour is contagious at the individual level, group level and even at the societal level.  How might our initiative planner create his herd? Why not make sure that, at the beginning of the project, those ‘bright spots’ who are already taking their breaks walk past as many offices as possible so that everyone else can see? How about publicising figures each week of the growing number of people taking their breaks? Don’t forget the impact of a good destination postcard as well.

For those of you wanting to ensure that you create successful and lasting change, at the very least read the book, and if you want more tailored advice, come and find us…..

Catherine BAKERComment