To Get People to Change, Make Change Easy

Have you ever noticed that in a bowl of free fruit, the bananas will always go first? And no one takes the oranges at all! The reason is simple, and it’s not that the world is full of orange-haters. It’s that oranges are harder to peel. This principle — call it the Banana Principle — is an important one for managers and should be kept in mind. Another way to think about this is friction. Friction is the force that slows things down. Most trains combat friction by applying grease to the tracks. The world’s fastest trains, like China’s 217.5 mph bullet, use magnets to make the trains float above the tracks.

Consider how this analogy applies to the way employees operate. What positive actions are thwarted by small obstacles? What bad habits are easy to continue? How might you introduce friction so that detrimental behaviors are harder to start? And how might you reduce friction so that positive actions feel more like a glide than an uphill trek?

Over a century ago, the philosopher Guillaume Ferrero proposed that humans operate on the Principle of Least Effort: given several paths, we pick the easiest.

It’s important to understand this principle to facilitate cross-team collaboration. At times walking over to someone’s office and opening the door may be all the friction standing in the way of a seamless interaction? So to combat this friction, set aside a neutral turf for cross-functional teams. It’s worth considering how you can re-configure your workspace to foster target behavior. Want certain people to talk to each other more? Seat them close together or give them a shared place to go. Want people to do more brainstorming? Put up whiteboards or have stacks of Post-It Notes in every room. Want to encourage more feedback? Create spots for private conversation or hand out gift cards for local cafés. Want people to recycle more? Place large bins in various spots around the office.

But what if your goal is to stop or reduce a behavior? If so, you’ll need to draw inspiration from oranges rather than bananas. In other words, introduce more friction. For example, let’s say you have a problem with teenagers loitering near your business. You could yell at them or put up menacing signs, but none of these tactics is likely to work on rebellious teens. To put the Banana Principle to work, you’d have to make it slightly less pleasant to spend time there. Two underpasses in London with a chronic and dangerous teen loitering problem did just that by installing pink lighting that immediately scattered the teens. Why did it work so well? Pink lighting makes acne more prominent.

An elegant “orange”, we see across many companies is the use of headphones in open plan work spaces in order to deter shoulder taps and “quick questions.” Seeing co-workers with headphones on, makes it slightly uncomfortable to start an impromptu conversation. However, earbud headphones are not enough to keep distractions at bay. Co-workers simply waved in front of each other’s faces. So, to increase the orange factor, one needs to wear the large, bright coloured headphones.

The power of the ‘Banana Principle’ lies in its simplicity and its silence. So, next time you are tempted to convince someone (or even yourself) to change a behavior, consider how you might change the friction level instead. Find ways to make the positive behaviors feel more like bananas and the negative behaviors feel more like oranges.

The team at Actuate Business Consulting, a knowledge-based management consulting firm in India, believes, that when trying to change people’s behaviour, instead of trying yet another persuasive speech or detailed explanation, implementing the aforementioned ‘banana principle / friction’ to the work environment will yield better results.

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