“Shape the path” to influence change

Photo/Dennis Sparks

“What looks like a people problem is often a situation problem.” —Chip Heath &  Dan Heath

Chip Heath and Dan Heath explain the change process this way in Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard: “For individual behavior to change, you’ve got to influence not only their environment but their hearts and minds.” To explain their ideas they offer the metaphor of an elephant with a rider, with the intellect represented by the rider and emotions by the elephant. The rider plans and directs; the elephant provides the energy. The extend the metaphor by including “the path,” the situation or environment in which the rider and elephant find themselves. Leaders’ work, then, is to guide the change effort through clarity of purpose and direction, motivate the elephant by engaging people’s emotions, and “shape the path” to enable the desired performance. Previous essays described ways to affect “the rider” and “the elephant.”

To help us understand the power of the path, the Heath brothers ask readers to note how many times a day someone has tweaked their environment to shape their behavior (examples include lane markers on roads, the location of displays in groceries stores, and ATM machines that made it difficult for you to leave your card or cash).

The Heaths stress the power of culture and habits to shape behavior. “People are incredibly sensitive to the environment and the culture . . .,” they write. “Because we instinctively try to fit in with our peer group, behavior is contagious . . . . To change yourself or other people, you’ve got to change habits . . . .” Noting that even small environmental changes can make a difference, they suggest “action triggers” in which you create a mental plan that includes a time and place in which you’ll engage in a particular action. “Action triggers simply have to be specific enough and visible enough to interrupt people’s normal stream of consciousness,” the Heaths note.

Chip and Dan Heath also suggest the development of habits and routines as ways to shape the environment because they create a kind of “behavioral autopilot.” In addition, they encourage the use of checklists (the subject of an upcoming essay) to remind people of important behaviors that might otherwise be overlooked.

The Heaths use the phrase “rally the herd” to describe ways in which organizational culture and peer influence can be used to promote the desired behavior, citing efforts to promote “designated drivers” in the 1980s as a example of cultivating cultural influence to shape behavior. Meeting agreements and group protocols are examples of ways leaders shape habits and routines and cultivate high-performance cultures.

Ways school leaders might shape the path:

Meeting agreements: Establish meeting agreements (some people call them “norms”) that establish group expectations regarding meeting behavior (for instance, arrive on time and stay until the meeting’s conclusion, be fully engaged, and do not say anything outside the meeting you have not said in it).

Protocols: Use tools that shape meeting behavior, whether the meeting is for the primary purpose of professional learning, problem solving, or decision making.

Action triggers to establish new behaviors/habits: Imagine yourself in a future situation doing a desired behavior. Trigger the behavior through a notation in you calendar, to-do list, or post-it on your bathroom mirror.

Take a moment now to . . .

• select one of the methods above to “shape the path” regarding improvements in your own leadership practice or for a significant change effort in the school community.

1 Response to ““Shape the path” to influence change”


  1. 1 Kent Peterson May 18, 2010 at 10:33 am

    This is a great description of “shaping the path” for educators–so important to move forward and build a positive, progressive (versus a toxic) culture.

    The photo at the beginning of the piece seems also important. Taking time to reflect–look into the pool–consider what’s important before moving forward is key for leaders.

    I am going to find that book and read the other links!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s




Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 4,761 other followers

Archives

Categories

Recent Twitter Posts