Jan 24, 2019

So here’s the problem—you have a large herd of issues and relationships that bug you. Department leaders complain incessantly. You consistently miss budget targets. Customers are two steps past belligerent. And you’re frustrated most off all because these problems are persistent and resistant. You’ve tried everything you know and have yet to see improvements. So you’re left with two options: surrender to poor results or continue down the path of ineffective change efforts that waste precious time and resources.

Thankfully, coping and carping aren’t necessary. It turns out it is possible to influence most any behavior with surprisingly predictable success.

A quiet community of practitioners around the world use powerful influence principles to solve problems ranging from national AIDS epidemics to turning around criminals to eliminating medical errors—all by influencing profoundly entrenched behaviors in rapid, sustainable and effective ways. As we traveled around the world to meet these influence geniuses, it was no surprise that their astounding success was attributable to the same set of principles each and every time—three principles that when applied to corporate change will bring about profound results:

1. Find the vital behaviors
2. Change how you change minds
3. Make change inevitable

While any influence effort requires executives to focus on all three principles, I’d like to examine the power of the second principle: change how you change minds. But first, let’s review how you and almost everyone you know, currently attempts to get buy in, make the case for change or get others to want to change.

“Next Slide, Please”

When problems become acute, how many of us have seen or used the following approach? After four or five e-mails that describe the problem and invite, beg, or demand improvements, the meeting invites circulate. In these meetings, presentation slides display columns of data, pie-charts, and glowing arrows going in the wrong directions. These slides are accompanied by long, technical explanations of the problem and stern challenges.

Occasionally the emails, meetings and slides work; but most often they don’t. When it comes to persistent and resistant problems, this stream of data delivered with increased frequency, volume, or font size, only morphs into white noise.

The point is that too many people rely almost entirely on verbal persuasion. Our observation of influence masters from around the world offers some better solutions.

Powerful Stories, Field Trips and Direct Experience

Rather than just aim at someone’s intellect, influencers direct their efforts at the whole person. At the core of this more powerful approach is experience. Direct experience is the gold standard of helping people answer two questions fundamental to helping individuals or groups change: “Can I do it?” and “Will it be worth it?” When people can draw from direct experience, they are more likely to answer these two questions in the affirmative. Let’s look at a few examples.

Direct Experience
To maintain minimal bureaucracy and ensure executives understand what employees face in the fast food industry, executives work behind the counters and at drive-through windows. During this “experience,” they hear customers first-hand, they endure barriers for employees, and they notice that the napkin dispensers are in the wrong place. “How come this hasn’t been fixed?” asks a VP. “I don’t know. We sent three emails,” the manager responds. Direct experience makes it more likely that the fix will be accomplished.

Field Trips
You manufacture widgets. They are complicated and customers and mechanics in the repair shops complain. After quarters and quarters of data sharing, the problem persists. So the managers create a field trip. They get a half dozen of their respected line workers and a respected supervisor and they visit the repair shops and the customers. The examples they see and the stories they hear have power. Those on the field trip conclude: “We have to fix this and we can!”

Stories present an interesting and powerful point. It is impossible to send everyone to the drive-through window for a first-hand experience and it’s too expensive to send everyone in manufacturing to feel the pain and hear the good ideas of customers and mechanics. So what do you do?

Let’s start with what NOT to do. When the executives and line workers get back—fired up, enthused with ideas and determined to help change the rest of the group—what do they most commonly do? They create charts and slides and whip their colleagues into a snooze.

What they need to do is tell the whole story. A powerful story is a form of experience—vicarious experience. It helps people see, hear and feel the visit.

To catalyze change, the visiting team needs to tell the following story: “When we got to the mechanic shop, we were met by a mob. One mechanic yelled to get some attention and said, ‘Here I’ll show you.’ He then took off the housing plate. And I was thinking, ‘He just doesn’t get it.’ And yet as he showed how the flange was at the wrong angle and how his drill and the three other models he had there wouldn’t work, I began to see the problem….”

This vicarious experience ends with the each member of the visiting team sharing their story about their initial reservations, how they questioned mechanics, how they eliminated some concerns with instruction and why their four recommendations are doable and vital to the company, mechanics and customers.

With a little practice

You can become better at telling stories—tools that help others understand and feel the need for change. Stories are immediately accessible and enormously powerful. They provide images and details that are more influential than terse lectures or slides. To be effective, stories need to be complete, providing the link between current problems and behaviors and the replacement behaviors and results.

You can create field trips. The mother who nags her 14-year-old diabetic daughter about eating right and taking her insulin will have more influence if she lets her daughter visit a center and talk to people who have minimized negative outcomes by effectively following protocols. This direct experience will give the daughter access to powerful stories beyond what a parent could attempt to share verbally.

Simulations and case studies are ways to create vicarious experience for employees. Having customers and mechanics visit, tell their stories and demonstrate their problems is another way of bringing field trips in-house. Rotating jobs within a company helps people increase their understanding and empathy. Two or three sales people who work in accounting and shipping for a couple of hours can directly feel why they should completely and clearly fill out the order forms if they expect timely, accurate shipments.

The most important capacity we possess is our ability to influence behavior—that of ourselves or others. With a modest increase in influence repertoire and skills, any leader can replace verbal attempts at persuasion with powerful strategies to influence the results he or she cares about most.