Overcoming barriers to change as agents of change
By being a catalyst and change agent, we can reduce roadblocks, by understanding why people change and when they don’t. There are 5 major barriers to change implementation: Intuitive Reactions, Endowment Effects, Gaps and Divides, Uncertainty, and Lack of Evidence
The challenge of change
Everyone has something they need to change. Whether it be a senior manager or client’s mind, transforming an organization, consumer behavior, industries, or even the world. But change is hard and often nothing happens despite the greatest of efforts at the highest of costs.
In the smartphone industry, new phones are often faster, have more memory, and better services, and therefore, people should very simply switch, but they don’t. This is because even though new things are technically better, people still cling to the old where they follow the same processes and maintain the same courses of action. This phenomenon is called the status quo bias.
Every change has upsides and downsides. For example, new software saves money, but has to be integrated with the old system and takes a while to learn. In the case of a coin flip game where you would earn $102 if it lands heads and lose $100 if it lands tails, standard economics would say that one should take the bet as the expected value is positive, but in reality, people do not take this bet because losses loom larger than gains. When deciding to take a bet, buying a new phone, or making any change, the potential disadvantages are weighted more heavily than the potential advantages in the minds of the stakeholders. Loss aversion research has shown that the potential gains of doing something have to be over two times larger than the potential downsides to get people to take action.
Whenever people think about changing, they compare new things to their current state, the status quo and if the potential gains barely outweigh the potential losses, they don’t budge. To overcome loss aversion fears, new software can’t just be a little better, they have to be a lot better. In general, a new approach can’t just be slightly more effective, it has to be significantly more effective. If people have to give up something they like or lose things they value, the boosted efficiencies or decreased costs, or any other positive changes, has to be at least twice as big to make up for that loss.
Pushing people vs. removing barriers
But how can we overcome loss aversion and the status quo bias and get people to change? Well, when we aim for generating change, we often use push strategies. For example, we tend to send seniors more information and emails or call the clients more often or send them additional pitch decks. With all these strategies, we think that if we push people a little bit harder, they’ll begin to change.
Push strategies are intuitively built in us and it comes from our physical understanding of the world around us. So for example, if we want to move a chair, we push it. But when it comes to the social world and to changing minds and organizations — when we push people, they often push back, ignore us, or even do the exact opposite.
To be a successful change agent, rather than increasing the heat, we need to lower the barriers to change. We need to serve as chemical catalysts, altering conditions so that it’s easier for chemical bonds to break and rearrange, enabling the same change to happen with less energy. In other words, there’s a better way to generate change and it’s not about pushing harder or being more convincing, or a better persuader but about changing minds by removing roadblocks and lowering the barriers that hold people from taking action.
When we try to change minds and organizations, we’re often so focused on our desired outcomes that we spend most of our energy thinking about the various ways we could push people in that direction, and in doing so, we forget about the person whose mind we’re trying to change and what’s stopping them. Rather than asking what might convince someone to change, change catalysts often start with questions such as:
- Why hasn’t that person changed already?
- What’s hindering or preventing them?
- What’s stopping them?
Change agents need to know how to overcome inertia, incite action, and change minds, by removing barriers to change.
The 5 major barriers to change
Intuitive reactions, Endowment Effects, Gaps and Divides, Uncertainty, and Lack of Evidence are the five key barriers to any change project.
When pushed people often push back, just like a missile defense system working against an incoming projectile, people have an innate anti-persuasion system. A radar that kicks in when they sense someone is trying to convince them to lower this barrier. Here, we need to encourage people to persuade themselves, by having them actively participate.
People are attached to what they’re doing already, and they think that doing nothing is costless, but it often is not. We need to surface the cost of inaction, making people realize that doing nothing isn’t free. Sometimes we need to make it difficult for people to do the status quo.
Accepting that people have an innate anti-persuasion system, but even when we provide information, sometimes it backfires. And the reason is that things are just too far away — in other words, there are huge gaps and divides. If the information is in people’s zone of acceptance, they’re willing to listen, but if it falls too far away, communication is ignored, or even worse, increases opposition.
Change often involves uncertainty: will the new product, idea, or service be as good as the old? It’s hard to know for sure and this uncertainty makes people hit the pause button stemming action. To overcome this barrier, we need to make things easier to try.
Sometimes no matter how information and knowledge we provide, it’s just not enough. Some things need more evidence to overcome communication barriers and drive change. To overcome this barrier we need to find reinforcement and provide evidence.
Note that not every situation involves all five roadblocks. Sometimes there is only one and sometimes it’s a combination of a few of them, but by understanding all, we can diagnose which ones are at work and learn to mitigate them.
Barrier 1: overcoming intuitive reactions
In early 2018, P&G was confronted with a marketing disaster whereby people were eating its Tide Pod detergents, leading to a rise in the number of reported cases of intoxication. P&G’s solution was several warning campaigns that conveyed a warning message that the pods were only for laundry purposes; even recruiting celebrities for their campaigns. However, no reversal in the trend was observed.
Warnings, whether we are trying to get people to consume less fat or alcohol, have been a standard approach for decades. Warnings aim to tell people what to do in a standard way, and this has been the essence of public health messaging for the last 50 years. Alcohol prevention messages that tell people not to drink, can lead college students to drink more, or trying to persuade people that smoking is bad by telling them not to smoke can make them more interested in smoking in the future. In these examples, warnings became recommendations. Very simply put, when pushed, people don’t just go along, they often push back.
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The need for autonomy and control
People need freedom and autonomy or a need for agency and control. To feel that their lives, choices, and actions are driven by themselves rather than by randomness or subject to the whims of others. When we direct, encourage, or ask people to do something, it impinges on their ability to see their course of action as driven by themselves, making them less interested in going along with what we’ve suggested. In these situations, people tend to think: ‘of they’re telling me to do it, I don’t want to do it because it impinges on my freedom and autonomy.’
In other words, people have an anti-persuasion radar and when people feel that someone is trying to convince them, impinging on their ability to make a decision, their radar is activated and shoots down the incoming persuasion attempt.
We can’t push people as an attempt to try to persuade them. We need to encourage people to persuade themselves. In other words, we need to allow for perceived autonomy and agency. We need to make them feel like they have more control over the decision they’re making. We need to guide, but not impose the path. And there are three ways to this end:
- Give choice
- Ask questions
- Finding a flaw
Rather than giving people one option, give them at least two. For example, rather than saying: ‘hey, we could go out to a movie’, say: ‘we could go out to a movie or we could go out to dinner’. Rather than telling seniors: ‘hey, we could do one course of action, say we could fund this new project or we could do this other one.’
In these situations, the person, rather than counter-arguing your offer, is thinking: ‘well, which of those two options that you gave me do I like better?’, and are much more likely to go along with what you suggested. Consultants, for example, rather than give clients one option, often give them two or three. because they know if they provide just one option to the client, the client will say it’s too expensive or it’s not going to work.
Choices give people bounded options to think about. When people are provided with a small set, at least two, for example, they have more freedom and autonomy to participate in the decision-making process, just like a restaurant menu.
Allow for autonomy in decision making by asking questions rather than making statements. Instead of telling people what they need to do, start asking instead. Asking, about their needs, goals, objective outcomes and desires, etc., and when people have elaborated their deep intentions and desires, ask: ‘do you know what needs to be done to achieve those goals or outcomes?’ and allow them to contemplate. Invoke their curiosity to ask your desired change-related questions.
- Is like providing options of choice, it shifts the listener’s role. People are figuring out answers to the question rather than counter-arguing.
- Increases buy-in, because while people might not always want to follow someone else’s lead, they are very happy to follow their own and their answers are not just an ordinary answer to a question, but their ‘personal’ answer, reflecting their thoughts, opinions, and beliefs.
By asking questions we have people put a stake in the ground and commit to the conclusion, enabling them to see how our path is the right way to get results. They’ve bought into our conclusion, and because of that, they’re much more likely to go along. Therefore, rather than pushing, start by asking questions. This allows you to gather information about the problem and get buy-in to the change program.
Finding a flaw
Finding a flaw is essentially pointing out a disconnect between someone’s thoughts and actions or a disparity between what people might recommend to someone else versus what they’re actually doing themselves. And the logic is quite simple: people strive for internal consistency. They want their attitudes, their beliefs and their behaviors to align. If I say I care a lot about the environment for example, well, then I better do my best job to recycle and reduce my carbon footprint.
In the case of the video above and the reason for the success of its campaign is that when people’s attitudes and behaviors conflict, otherwise called a ‘cognitive dissonance’, they take steps to bring things back in line.
This idea can be applied in a variety of situations. For example, imagine an old project in the office that’s not working, but people don’t want to kill it due to inertia or the status quo bias. In this situation, rather than asking people to kill the project, ask them: ‘what they would recommend for a different company in a similar situation, for example, a close competition’.
By highlighting gaps, by pointing out that what people would recommend for someone else is not the same thing they’re doing themselves, can make them more likely to change their behavior. Therefore, rather than trying to push and persuade, we start by communicating a core internal barrier to change. By finding gaps, we encourage people to persuade themselves.
Barrier 2: overcoming the endowment effect
A person who has just had a heart bypass surgery or an angioplasty to widen obstructed arteries is told to change their diet and lifestyle, but only around 10% do. Change is hard because people tend to overvalue what they have already, what they already own, or what they’re already doing.
Consider a ceramic coffee mug. When asked how much people would be willing to pay for such a mug, the average answer was around three dollars — nothing special. However, when people are asked to sell the mug (i.e. they are the owners of the mug), they demand double the price a buyer would pay. In reality, the buying and selling amounts should be the same as the coffee mugs are the same. The underlying driver of this discrepancy is that once we are endowed with something, we start to become attached to it and consequently value it more. This has been called the endowment effect.
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When something is ours, we value it more and the longer we own or do something, the more we’ll get attached and value it. To ease the pains of the endowment effect, there are three options:
- Showcasing the cost of ‘doing nothing’
- Burning bridges and the inertia to return to status quo
- Framing new things as old ones
Showcase the cost of doing nothing
Horrible performance generates action but average performance generates complacency — terrible things get replaced but mediocre things stick around. To overcome endowment we need to help people realize that the costs of doing nothing; that doing nothing isn’t painless and has downsides. Entering an email signature might only take a few seconds, but over 100 emails a week could add up to hours of lost time, and hence it is better to use an automated signature application.
Whenever the status quo is okay but not stellar, mediocre but not terrible, change doesn’t seem worth the effort; but by surfacing the costs of an action can help people realize that sticking with the status quo isn’t as costless as it may seem.
Good is the enemy of great. We don’t have great schools principally because we have good schools. We don’t have great government, principally because we have good government. Few people attain great lives in large part because it’s so easy to settle for a good life — Jim Collins
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When things are good or ‘not great’ but just ‘good enough’, it’s easy to stick to the status quo. Change is costly and requires effort. To change minds we need to make it easier for people to see the difference between what they’re doing now and what they could be doing instead. Rather than just focusing on how much better the new thing is than the old, we need to highlight how much people are losing by doing nothing. Because as loss aversion shows, losses loom larger than gains. Losing $10 feels worse than gaining $10, and losing efficiency feels worse than gaining it. Framed the right way, even a headache is worth the attention.
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The expression of ‘burning bridges’ comes from the idea that burning a bridge after crossing it during a military campaign leaves a troop with no choice but to continue the march. Compared to the situations most people face daily, this tactic is extreme and even seems selfish, but more reasonable versions can be applied to a broad set of social and behavioral situations.
For example, car manufacturers, don’t refuse to make replacement parts available for older vehicles, but once a reasonable amount of time has passed, they stop making as many. Prices go up and consumers are encouraged to transition to something new. Manufacturers don’t force consumers to change but they also don’t subsidize the prices of older parts leaving them artificially low and passing costs to consumers.
In general, inaction is easy, requires little effort to stick with the same beliefs, and little time to stick to the same policies and approaches. Inaction often wins, inertia prevails, and a body at rest tends to stay at rest. Therefore, sometimes we need to take inertia off the table and no longer subsidize it. Rather than think about whether a given new thing is better than the old one, by taking inaction off the table, we encourage people to set aside the old and instead think about which new thing is worth pursuing.
Framing new things as old ones
The Brexit campaign had two major slogans:
- We send the EU £350 million a week, let’s fund our National Health Service instead
- Let’s take back control
‘Back’ is a simple word and it doesn’t mean a lot, but it triggers loss aversion. It makes it seem like something had been lost and that leaving the EU was a way to regain that again. When the ‘British Election Survey’ surveyed voters, people significantly preferred the “take back control” slogan, and eventually, the shocking result of Britain’s exit from the EU was delivered.
The “take back control” slogan cleverly reframes the entire debate. It took the endowment effect and people’s increased valuation for what they already have and reminded them that Britain used to be outside the EU. That leaving wasn’t risky, it was simply a way of righting the ship, returning things to how they were already.
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This strategy is a cunning way to make something new seem like something old and politicians do this often where they talk about going back to the basic fundamental of a society’s existence. Using this tactic, organizations and new products can talk about how their offering or focus hasn’t returned to their roots — that it’s not a change, it’s a refresh.
Barrier 3: overcoming gaps and divides
To say that the current political climate in the United States is divisive would be an understatement. To solve this problem, pundits have often suggested reaching across the aisle, talking to someone who sees things differently, and creating bridges towards the other side. Intuitively, this might make sense, but it rarely works.
Experiments have shown connecting with the other side does change minds but in the opposite direction — otherwise know as the ‘back fire effect’. For example, rather than becoming more liberal, conservatives became more conservative and extreme attitudes and vice versa. As stated previously, pushing people will only make them push back to the status quo. Therefore, in most cases, more information does not help opposing sides to cross bridges.
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When we are trying to change minds we hope that evidence and information will work. Giving people facts, figures, and hopefully, they will update their thinking and shift opinions accordingly. Unfortunately, this rarely happens. Exposure to the truth doesn’t always work and sometimes it even makes people more likely to reaffirms falsehoods.
The Confirmation Bias
People pick facts and interpret them to fit their beliefs and worldviews. The decision to accept or look for flaws depends on their existing beliefs. Therefore, one’s truth is another’s fake news — whether information seems true or false depends on our position and starting point. And consequentially, exposure to evidence sometimes widens the divide. The tendency to look for and process information in a way that confirms what we already think is called the confirmation bias.
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When thinking of the division of beliefs, we need to understand that there is a spectrum of divide. While on either end are the extreme liberals and conservatives, there are a wide spectrum of individuals in the middle — with the undecided focus in the middle and the moderates dispersed in between, with topical swings depending on the subject matter.
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People’s beliefs and worldviews may put them as a spot on the field, but around that spot where they are a variety of zones:
- Zone of acceptance, includes a viewpoint people agree with the most, along with the range of other viewpoints they could potentially support
- Zone of rejection, beyond the safe area, are the perspectives that people strongly disagree with and actively reject as wrong
- Zone of consideration, this is the region where people have a current opinion but they are flexible and willing to consider things in one direction or the other
These different zones determine whether incoming information succeeds or fails. When information drops into the zone of consideration, people might change minds and move a little bit in a direction, but if it’s too far into the region of rejection, it will fail to persuade and might even backfire, with people becoming even more certain of their initial views or beliefs. In other words, people are willing to consider different perspectives up to a certain point, but beyond that things get ignored.
These biases make changing minds all the more difficult. Not only do people have to be willing to change, but they have to be willing to listen to information that might open them up to its possibility. There are three ways to overcome this barrier:
- Aim for the movable middle
- Start small, then gradually ramp up
- Start with common grounds
The movable middle — the ‘early adopters’
It’s easy to get a liberal to support a slightly liberal or slightly conservative candidate. But getting a liberal to support a conservative is a lot more challenging. Feeling strong about an issue or domain changes an individual’s zone of acceptance; the more one cares about something the smaller their zone of consideration and wider the region of rejection. And this is part of why changing political views is so challenging because candidates are not just trying to change positions slightly, buy aiming to get people to switch sides on many controversial issues.
However, there is a silver lining — one place where candidates tend to change minds in general elections is the movable middle. Smart political campaigns don’t try to change every mind but focus on the swing voters who are open to facts and arguments. Swing voters are undecideds or pockets of people who, given the candidate, circumstances or issues, are more receptive to being swayed. Swing voters are people who have a larger zone of acceptance or a zone that overlaps more with the candidate’s positions and they need to be targeted with specific messages that are most useful for them.
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When dealing with issues where people feel strongly, we need to start with the movable middle because they’re not so far away to begin with. One way is to look for clues that indicate contradicting opinions or a willingness to change. In the business context, for example, going on social media and looking for consumers who complained against a competitor. These people are more willing to switch in the first place, they’re already in that movable middle, and they’re easier to target.
When data isn’t available, try testing and learning. Take a sample of people, test a particular approach, and report key characteristics on various dimensions. This can help identify subgroups that can determine what types of people might be good to go after more broadly. This is basically like trying to find the early adopters to a new product rather than trying to convince everyone. It’s about finding the subset of people that desperately need the change and going after them. Venture capitalists often talk about products and services as vitamins or painkillers. Nice-to-haves, vitamins that can be put off until later, but the need-to-haves painkillers are offerings that people can’t live without.
Try asking for less rather than pushing for more. Don’t start with a big ask, dial it down to what falls within that zone of acceptance. This approach not only makes the initial request more successful but also makes a big change more likely overall. For example, with obese people, you need a step by step process that curbs diets to more low-calorie ones gradually, otherwise, all efforts will fail.
If we desire a big shift in people’s perspective, we need to look for silver bullets that will immediately get someone to take action. Big changes are rarely abrupt, instead, they’re more often a slow and steady process with many small changes along the way. Moreover, asking for less is not about only asking for less, it’s about committing people to the process, breaking a big task into smaller, more manageable chunks, starting with one and building from there. This approach gradually moves people from rejection zones to consideration and acceptance zones.
Product designers often talk about this approach as agile or stepping-stones. For example, if Uber, had initially asked users to get into a stranger’s car it probably wouldn’t have been very successful. Instead, they started with a much smaller task and launched an easier way to hail private drivers, something people were used to already. Only after this initial high-end positioning, they moved down the market to UberX, a cheaper option that offered non-luxury vehicles. In other words, Uber chunked the change, by taking the big change and shrinking the size of the ask into gradual and agile stepping stones.
Add stepping stones along the way — just like a river crossing — and people will be much more willing to take the journey. Now, they can hop from one side to the other without worrying about getting wet.
Starting with common grounds
Starting with common grounds is trying to find a dimension where there’s already agreement and using that as a pivot point to bring opposing sides together, just like in the video above. The content in the video is powerful and seems to work, because it mainly finds a common point between the sides, rather than start with the contentious issues or the field in which people are far apart already. Smart change agents change the conversation, rather than starting with the divisive issues, they start with common grounds, something everyone else can rally around, and after building that initial connection among people, they pivot to the key issue at hand.
Starting with common grounds means switching the playing field from one where two teams are dug in on different ends to one where everyone’s on the same team. Points of agreement such as making sure the company continues to grow or employee retention stays high are great starting grounds.
Barrier 4: overcoming uncertainty
Switching costs will always be associated with change. For example, when buying a new phone, car, or software we have to pay money to get that new item, spend time reading the manual, and getting things going, being careful not to scratch the new items or interfere with the operation of the bigger system. In other words, with each change project, there’s extra money, time, or effort involved compared to doing what is already being done. And, we tend to not like these costs. But the new costs are not the main problem.
- The cost-benefit time gap. With the new phone or software, the costs are always right away and upfront, but the benefits will be redeemed in the future. However, humans want the benefits now and the cost later, and so the cost-benefit timing gap makes change a challenge.
- The uncertainty of benefits. Costs are certain and definite while benefits are often uncertain. We have to pay the $1000 cost of a phone upfront, but whether we will be happy with its functionality is something we will only know after purchase. And we humans, don’t like uncertainty, we want guarantees. Imagine the case of missing a bus and not getting to school on time. The emotions associated with the uncertainty of not knowing one will arrive on time to school are more painful than when we have come to terms with the fact that we will not get there on time. This is the burden of uncertainty.
- Emotional bias despite the same outcomes. Imagine the case of having completed a project and the result will be announced in a couple of days. You have gone through four months of effort to deliver the project and will only know the result later. Now, you have seen a vacation package that you have wanted at a discount, and decide to postpone the decision of buying till after the verdict. While you will certainly take the vacation if the verdict is positive and will most probably go on the vacation to let off some steam if the verdict is negative, you still decide to postpone the decision till after the verdict. Meaning, despite the outcome of the verdict, you will end up taking the vacation, but emotionally, decide not to. This is another example of how uncertainty can play with our emotions and decisions.
Whenever there’s uncertainty, whenever we don’t know how something’s going to turn out, often both the anxiety around it and that feeling of uncertainty leads us to do nothing. For example, in our personal lives, whether we’re trying to change our spouse or our neighbor’s mind, any time we’re trying to get them to do something new, there’s often uncertainty around that new thing, and whenever people feel an uncertainty, they hit the pause button. This inertia is fine for the status quo, but terrible for change. To overcome the uncertainty bias, we can use four tactics:
- Utilizing freemium
- Lowering upfront costs
- Taking trials to the people
- Building reversibility into the experience
Initially Dropbox had a simple problem, people didn’t know whether it was worth using, they had their old ways of storing files on their desktop and worried about losing their files — such as family photos — if something happens to dropbox. In other words, they had doubts and uncertainty about using Dropbox. Dropbox’s solution was to give it away for free.
Dropbox gave a certain amount of storage away for free, using as many of the features as possible, and if usage exceeded the limit, then users needed to pay a premium. The notion was that by giving people the free version, Dropbox allowed them to experience whether they liked the service or not.
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Today online publications such as New York Times or HBR, Skype, LinkedIn, and Spotify utilize the freemium business model. Freemium isn’t about getting people into something and then not allowing them to get out. In freemium, people only get charged if and when they decide they want an upgrade or extra features. Freemium is about pulling people to convince themselves, rather than pushing them one way or another.
The success of a freemium business model is dependent upon: what will help users best experience the offering? And, what will encourage them to upgrade/migrate to premium?
- The freemium model lowers the upfront costs and associated uncertainties, making it easier for people to experience the offering and its value add. In freemium models, we want to make it extremely easy and frictionless for people to onboard.
- With the freemium model, if we give away too much or too little, people might not want to check out the premium version. This is the case with LinkedIn; most general users don’t see the advantage with the premium version, because most features are provided for free. In the case of providing too little free features, Washington Post has limited free monthly articles close to zero, making it extremely painful for users to decide to pay for its content. The freemium offering needs to be built such that people get a sense of what the experience is like, but not so much or so little that they’re not going to want to upgrade. For example, in the case of video streaming services such as Netflix or HBO, imagine a service that allowed users to watch 5 minutes in the beginning and the middle of the content before deciding on the purchase, compared to the 30-day free full access trial and then none.
- The key to freemium is thinking about the right thing to give away, enough to get people into the service initially, and not making it so hard to upgrade to the premium version. Making it clear that there’s something better on the other side of the wall.
- Switching costs play a key role in the success of freemium offerings. In the case of Dropbox, while other services give away storage for free, users rarely switch vendors because the pain of transferring files and information is too high. Therefore in the case of Dropbox, the freemium model, naturally builds a switching cost for users to depart, retaining people.
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Lowering upfront costs
Zappos built its business around free shipping, is one of the first e-commerce companies to have used free shipping, and created the e-commerce experience that we know of today. The challenge that consumers had when Zappos initially launched wasn’t about lower prices for shoes to purchase online, but rather their uncertainty over whether they were going to like the product or not, and people didn’t want to have to pay to find out.
Zappos’ free shipping offering lowered the upfront cost for people to experience whether they liked something or not, lowering the cost of investing time, money, and/or effort into switching from one thing to another.
This same methodology applies to when you take a car to a test drive before paying $30-$40k. The test drive makes it cheaper for the customer to experience the value of a car, lowering the upfront wall or barrier to experience and trial. The same happens in Apple Stores or at ice-cream parlors that give us samples of their product to test before making a large investment. To change people and switch their usual behavior, lower that barrier to trial.
Taking trials to the people
Test drives are great for people who already know the brand, but not very helpful for people who don’t know it. In these circumstances, we need to take the trial to our target audience.
With this intent, Acura partnered with W Hotels and anyone who is staying at these hotels could get a ride anywhere in town in an Acura. This approach helped a whole segment who never knew Acura existed or didn’t think they’d like it, to experience the offering. In other words, Acura figured out how to lower the barrier to trial, by taking the trial to the people. The same thing happened when Verizon brought the 5G coverage to several NFL stadiums, allowing people to use their network for free and see how much faster it was to load videos and do various other things, experiencing the value of the offering.
With trials, we need not force people to come check out our trial, we take the trial and its experience to them.
Building reversibility into the experience
Retailers often use return policies. Some restrictive and some lenient. Returns are a big cost center for retailers and every time we return something, they have to restock and resell it otherwise they’ll end up losing money. However, experimental research has shown that lean and widespread return policies increased profits by +20% because people feel that they can bring items back and end up buying more and recommending more things at the retailer. Such policies are largely prevalent in most online e-commerce retailers such as Zappos and Amazon and these return policies have contributed greatly to their growth.
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Overall, whether it’s free returns, money-back guarantees, or even pay performance contracts, all these things make people feel that if it doesn’t work out, they can get their upfront costs back.
This method can be applied to any change related effort; for example, when attempts to improve customer experience are blocked at your company, walk the opposed stakeholders through what an ideally developed organization would look like, allow them to experience the changes, and then start small in minor sections of the organization so that the changes can be made reversible.
When people don’t know whether something new will be better than what they’re doing already, they tend to hit the pause button. They tend to stick with what they’ve done before, and to ease uncertainty, we need to make it easier for people to experience the value themselves. To bring trial to people, we need to work on the front and back ends of the experience.
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Barrier 5: overcoming lack of evidence
Opinions towards the taste of an apple are examples of what are called weak attitudes, preferences, or opinions that people don’t find very important haven’t received much thought, or they’re relatively easy to change. In contrast, feelings about different political parties, favorite sports teams, or stance on abortion are examples of strong attitudes, high involvement issues, topics, or preferences that people think a lot about and hold great moral conviction.
Not surprisingly, strong attitudes are much more resistant to change. Rather than giving up or changing our minds about topics of high involvement, we tend to discount related information that goes against existing views, picking it apart rather than revising perspectives. Just like a really bad headache needs stronger medication, some issues, products, and behaviors need more before people will change, more proof or more evidence is required. Changing minds is similar to trying to lift something on the other end of a seesaw. The amount of weight or proof needed depends on the weight of the object on the other side.
Pushing people with more information does not work in action due to translation problems. Imagine someone comes in the office Monday morning and they tell you they watched an amazing show over the weekend and they recommend you watch it too. Now if you are little involved with the topic, you’d probably be convinced easily and may watch the show. However, if you’re a movie critic and are highly involved, then that one person’s feedback will probably not convince you to take any action. This is where the translation problem kicks in, and you start asking these questions:
- It could mean that the show is truly great.
- But it could also just mean that the colleague like lots of shows.
- Does the fact that the colleague said something say something about them or does it say something about the show being recommended?
- The colleague might recommend it but does it mean that I’ll like it?
- How informed is the colleague’s reaction relative to mine?
In general, when someone suggests or does something, it’s hard to know whether their opinion is a diagnostic of ours and what their reaction means relative to ours. But if multiple sources say or do the same thing, it’s harder not to listen because now there’s corroborating evidence, reinforcement, with multiple sources concurring. It’s easy to discount one person, but it’s hard to discount a chorus. When multiple people are saying or doing the same thing, it’s hard to argue that they’re wrong and that the thing they’re suggesting isn’t any good. It adds credibility and legitimacy.
More sources, more people saying or doing the same thing, can provide more proof. When looking for evidence, it’s important to consider:
- Who to involve as sources of evidence?
- When to space evidence out over time?
- How to deploy evidence?
Experiments have revealed that people are more likely to laugh and smile at comedians’ jokes when they hear other people laughing and if they deem the audience to be more like them — from the same socioeconomic and demographic backgrounds. In other words, similarity matters. If someone like me thinks a joke is funny, I’ll probably find it funny as well, but if someone who isn’t like me finds it funny, well, that doesn’t provide as much information about my likely reaction, it’s not as diagnostic about how I’ll feel about listening to it. For example, looking at hotels on TripAdvisor, as a family traveling with two kids, you probably want a place that other families have recommended rather than a place where hip 22-year-old’s prefer.
When dealing with the same issues or challenges, other people with the same needs, fall in the same vertical. The more similar they are, the more evidence they provide, and the greater their impact. Rather than trying to push prospects, we can have existing clients do the talking.
Imagine the case of a colleague recommending a show: they tell you how much they love it and another co-worker says something similar the next day, it’s hard not to at least consider checking out the show. When lots of people are talking about it, then the show must be pretty good. However, spread the span of these recommendations out a bit more and their effect is muted. One co-worker saying something today and another mentioning it in three weeks is less likely to drive action.
Similarly, when trying to change the boss’s mind after stopping by their office, change agents encourage colleagues to make similar suggestions right away. Hearing from multiple people in a short period increases the impact of those sources.
There are two approaches to the usage of evidence:
- Sprinkler approach, that spreads the evidence out to a large area of coverage with little depth. This approach is better used for a weak attitude change in people where there is little need to dig deep into potential barriers but need to reach to as many people possible in the shortest time.
- Fire-hose approach, is more concentrated and saturates one area again and again before moving on to the next. The fire-hose approach in best used for strong attitude topics, where people need high degrees of evidence to change the status quo.
This mindset can be used in change projects related to startups, organizations, personal endeavors, etc. For example, in an organization, one can focus on the finance and accounting departments and get them to change with high degrees of convincing to create the largest degree of impact.
In short, if there’s a low threshold for change, spread resources out and get everyone to hear about it at once. When change is hard, the stronger the attitudes towards the status quo, concentration is going to be more impactful.
To truly change something, you need to start by understanding it. Too often, potential change agents, focus on themselves as the center of an outcome they’re hoping to see. Change agents tend to become so blinded by the belief that they’re right that they assume if they provide more information, facts, or reasons, people will go along. While more often than not, people, organizations, or even broader things, don’t budge.
By focusing on ourselves and what we want, we often forget the most important part of change, understanding the audience. Not just who they are and how their needs might be different than ours, but what barriers are preventing them from shifting minds, changing behavior, or inciting action.
Start by finding your barriers to change, and then once you’ve identified them, think about how best to mitigate them. Because at the end of the day, everyone has something that they want to change. Politicians want to change voting behaviors and marketers want to build their customer base. Employees want to change their bosses’ perspective and leaders want to transform organizations. Spouses want to change their partner’s mind, parents want to shift child behavior. Startups want to change industries and non-profits want to change the world.
By being a catalyst and change agent, we can reduce roadblocks, by understanding why people change and when they don’t.