Posts Tagged 'shape the path'

“What looks like a people problem is often a situation problem”

I like ideas that absolve people of blame. That’s the most consistent theme in all of my work. I don’t like blaming people’s nature or behavior for things. I like blaming systems and structures and environments for things. — Malcolm Gladwell

I like ideas that cause me to question conventional wisdom, to think more deeply about my own often unexamined cultural assumptions.

Malcolm Gladwell’s perspective is just such an idea, one that I am willing to grapple with because of the respect I have for his work even though I don’t immediately agree with the idea.

Gladwell recognizes the influence of environment and of systems and structures, powerful forces that are often invisible to those who are profoundly affected  by them.

Chip Heath and Dan Heath extend that line of thought in this essay I first published in May 2010. 

“Shape the path” to influence change

“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. They 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 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 an 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 protocols to 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 your 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.


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