The delta of persuasion and micro-change management

People do not make leaps; they take one step at a time. So, implementing organisational change one micro-step at a time can help prepare, equip and support individuals to successfully adopt new ways of working, say the authors of The Live Enterprise

In 2016, Cornell University released a paper on the thorny subject of changing minds. Using an online forum over two years for their research sample, the findings suggested that numbers are important – you effectively have four chances to change an individual’s mind before it seemingly snaps shut. Getting your argument in first also seems to have greater impact than those arriving late to the party.

If Cornell’s research subjects were persuaded to change their minds, they confirmed this by typing “Δ,” or delta, the fourth letter of the Greek alphabet that mathematicians use as the symbol for change.

The research considered the role language plays in persuasion – it has to be nuanced, considered, and calm. ‘The’ works better than ‘a’, for example, meaning it helps to use the definite article. Contextual phrases like ‘for instance’ add credibility, as do ones like ‘it might be’, with cautionary phrases seeming to soften the sharper edges of an argument. Listening obviously helps with ‘opinion malleability’ too. People using a first-person ‘I’ are more entrenched in their views than those using an inclusive ‘we’.

When it comes to making this mental change, the research concludes that it is vital to understand how community norms encourage a well-behaved platform so that useful rules, moderation practices, or even automated tools can be deployed in the future.

Infosys initially applied the ‘Live Enterprise’ model [a model for creating a continuously evolving and learning organisation] internally and found that the most challenging aspect was changing mindset and community norms. As a result, we now plan and deliver adoption over a number of sprints so people can learn to think and act differently. This allows individuals time to tackle a small problem first, before being asked to be part of adoption at scale – a nuanced, considered approach that softens the sharp edges of persuasion.

Culture and servant leadership

This change in thinking and community norms is the catalyst to a changed work culture, beginning with the organisation’s leadership. Senior leaders must be vocal champions of change and demonstrate agility in their own actions. They should create and communicate shared purpose, hold themselves accountable to deliver value and establish a culture of transparency.

Cross-functional leadership is essential to having the ability to connect people who need to work together across boundaries or with those outside the enterprise. Successful transformations need strong and aligned leadership that shares a compelling, commonly understood, and jointly owned business vision. Mentoring new managers in their roles over an extended period sustains transformation. Cross-functional leadership is optimised by creating a cohort of managers that meet through stand-ups (as frequently as required to make decisions faster), receive group facilitation on real-life cases from their own work and reinforce learnings through weekly coaching sessions.

Nudges and micro-change

In 2008, University of Chicago economist, Richard Thaler, and Harvard Law School Professor, Cass Sunstein, published Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness. Triangulating half a century’s research in policy, psychology, and behavioural economics, the book highlighted how indirect suggestion and positive reinforcement influence the behaviour and decisions of groups and individuals. Thaler and Sunstein defined a ‘nudge’ as any aspect of the choice architecture that alters people’s behaviour in a predictable way without forbidding any options or significantly changing their economic incentives. To count as a mere nudge, the intervention must be easy and cheap to avoid. Nudges are not mandates. In their words, ‘Putting fruit at eye level counts as a nudge. Banning junk food does not.’

Put simply, a nudge is a stratagem to make judgments and choices easier, but not in a coercive way—a soft psychological push, rather than a shove. Nudges are behavioural micro-changes that are relatively easy and inexpensive to implement.

Micro-change management allows businesses to prepare, equip, and support individuals to successfully adopt changes that drive organisational success and outcomes via a digital platform. Again, this requires leadership commitment to a visible and active role to facilitate the cultural change.

With micro-change interventions carried out to accompany agile sprints, change occurs one micro-step at a time. Change interventions are instituted from the bottom up in micro-change, aided by change routines (Routine +1, or simply ‘Plus-one’). in the current process. To motivate people to adopt the new routine, nudges are introduced as cues, hints, or suggestions. Nudges achieve incremental behaviour shifts with minimal resistance, which leads to the ultimate behavioural shift and desired outcomes. People are reminded about goal importance through replicating successful nudges, by promoting these successes throughout the organisation—and also by recording and sharing stories of ‘failed’ nudges too.

‘Plus-one thinking’ aligns well with actual micro-change implementation. It considers where people are currently and their motivations. Plus-one is a change from which they don’t feel like going back to the previous way of working.

The cues and rewards that support bottom-up change also lead to the ultimate behavioural shift and desired outcomes, as the very nature of micro-change and plus-one thinking is intended to be nonthreatening. This goes back to the concept of routines and that people do not make leaps, they take one step at a time. And for them, the micro-perspective makes change nonthreatening – just simple steps that they can do for a while until becoming part of their new meaningful, adaptive routine.

This is an edited excerpt from The Live Enterprise: Create a Continuously Evolving and Learning Organization by Jeff Kavanaugh and Rafee Tarafdar, p. 174-176 (McGraw Hill, January 2021).

Jeff Kavanaugh is Vice President and Global Head of the Infosys Knowledge Institute, the research and thought leadership arm of tech services firm, Infosys. He is also an Adjunct Professor at the Jindal School of Management at the University of Texas at Dallas. Rafee Tarafdar is CTO of the Strategic Technology Group at Infosys.

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