Make Things Easier

EP 1

How should we respond to resistance? In this episode Simon explores a radical shift in how we can approach the natural resistance all leaders will experience when leading a change journey. He unpacks key findings from behavioural science and offers 3 simple strategies to help unlock adult behaviour change.


One of the reoccurring problems of practise, one of the persistent frustration in leaders that I’m working with is the experience of active and passive resistance. And they’re trying to lead genuine and useful change and they feel like they’re driven by what’s in the best interests of students and the broader school or system. But they’re starting to experience that frustrating kind of pushback around people clearly not necessarily being fully on board or coming with you. And I think at this point, our kind of default way of working is often to think, oh, I need to motivate these people. I need to change their mindsets. I need to somehow have the right language. I need to somehow have the right conversation at just the right time. And what I’m gonna do is be able to unlock their buy-in. And once I’ve got their buy-in, we can get moving.

And look, I’m a big fan of clear and compelling conversations and communication, but I do think sometimes we get too caught up in this idea that the only solution to pushback is somehow unlocking someone’s cognitive and emotional commitment to an idea. What we often describe is getting their buy-in. And we use that phrase as though it’s just something, you know, easy to get from someone. Hey, I’ve just gotta get their buy-in, just gotta change their mindset and then they’ll come with me. I think if you’ve ever even tried to get someone that you live with, uh, to be motivated to stack the dishwasher differently and you’ve had a few conversations with them about it, you’ll know as well as I do that using conversations to shift people’s motivation and their buy-in is not always the most effective pathway. Well, the science of behaviour change gives us as educational leaders some additional and alternative pathways we can use to try to rethink and respond to resistance differently and try to build a little bit more momentum in our work.

So in this episode, I want to just share three key things that I found unbelievably helpful. When leaders are in the change journey, they’re getting a little bit of pushback and resistance, and they want to think wisely about what are some things that they can do that might enhance and increase the likelihood of people actually shifting their behaviour. Well, the first big idea is to make it easier to do. The behavioural science is really clear that we humans are much more likely to engage in something where the effort involved is lower. And so in a school environment, this might mean can I provide someone with a tool to make it easier? Can I demarcate the specific time that something will be done? Can I set up the environment to make it easier for someone to be able to engage in the task? The first lesson is to try to make the thing you want someone to do easier to do.

And this is a funny one because so often we think, oh, well what I need to do is motivate, motivate them. But actually an alternative to motivating is just to reduce the effort required down to meet their current level of motivation. Make it easier to do well. Number two, uh, make it easier to start. Think wisely about when you ask people to initially engage in something and or, uh, pick up and reengage potentially after a break or a change of year or term. Think carefully about making things easier to start. It’s really interesting finding in the research based around behavioural science called the fresh start effect, a basic idea that we humans are a bit funny. Um, every day is not created equal with regards to the likelihood of us being actually successful in picking up a change in what we do. So think about a start of a new year, a start of a new term, a first day of spring, a first day of a month.

Whilst there’s technically no difference between these days and any other day, the evidence suggests that by using some of these fresh start opportunities, we can help people to begin or for others to begin again with a clear mindset it. Number two here around successful starts and helping people get moving is to think really carefully about how you can really make it a safe environment early on and help people make some early progress. This is a really important finding around that. You know, actually motivation is often not a prerequisite to get started, but it’s often a byproduct of making some early progress. So try to think really carefully when you’re getting people to first enter into whatever the work is you’re asking them to do. Don’t overload them, but also don’t ask them to kind of enter where you are at at the moment. You might have been around this work for quite a while.

You might be quite knowledgeable and skillful. And so it’s crucial to think about how to give people a successful start that’s at their right space right now. Uh, the other day I was coming home and my next door neighbor’s kids was, were riding a skateboard and going back and forth and hey, making a fair amount of progress. And I said to this Dad, Hey, do you ride? He goes, no, no, I tried it once back at school and haven’t been on since. And I said, me too. You know, there’s things where sometimes we give it a go and if we have a really low success rate in the first few attempts, we’ll often step away entirely. And the same is true of school change. Really think about making it easier to make a start and help people to have a successful early experience with a positive feedback.

The second idea is make it easier to start. And then the third idea is make it easier to see. Humans are social beings and we’re unbelievably influenced by what we see other people doing. So often we can be leading change and speaking only about conceptual things. It’s much more powerful to be able to point to social proof what the literature describes as an actual incident of something occurring in your context that demonstrates maybe not the perfect implementation of this work, but at least that it’s possible to do this work in our context, in our conditions with our students in our culture. So make things easier to see. Try to draw out social proof points. Try to demonstrate what real people are already doing in this context. It’s gonna be also really important to think about the core, uh, champions and called leaders within the organisation ensure that they’re modelling this behaviour or these changes themselves.

Because as we start to develop some of these social proof points, as we see our leaders and the key influential people modelling some of these approaches, it’s actually much easier for other people to follow along with those growing norms and different ways of working. So, hey, are you experiencing all at the moment a little bit of pushback in some of the work that you’re leading? I want to say there’s a range of tools in the toolkit you could use, but one of the ones that we most commonly overlook is the idea that rather than trying to always motivate people, we can actually work using a lens of behavioural science and behavioural design to make things easier. And as we make things, things easier to do, things easier to start and things easier to see, you’re gonna get a higher likelihood of more people making a little bit of progress, building some motivation and shifting the norms of your team or your culture over time.

It’s not a silver bullet and it’s not a panacea, but it is an evidence informed approach to getting moving. The best thing about working on designing things to be easier to do well, they’re things that we can control, that we can influence. If we get stuck all the time thinking about, oh, I’ve gotta change someone else’s mindset, their motivation, we can be stuck waiting for them to shift, but making things easier to do and to see and to start. These are things that are on our side of the fence. We can do the design work to make things better. So have a think about a project you’re working on a core initiative and of course, I’m not saying that you shouldn’t work hard to get your messaging right, but have you overlooked the opportunity here to see more progress from more people by making things easier? Have a conversation with your team picking one element and work through these three categories of how we could make things easier to do, how we could make these changes easier to to start, and how we could make these changes easier to see, look for opportunities that you might have not already made a lot of progress in. And see by making some of those changes, whether you can help people unlock more progress in your context.

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