These 4 Steps Will Help When You’re Stuck

How do some people make major changes happen?

Posted Nov 18, 2020

I once heard a presentation about a medical device for premature babies. The device, designed in the U.S., had been sent to several hospitals in Nepal. The designers were later shocked to learn that Nepalese nurses weren’t using the device as expected, and babies were dying.

The designers blamed the nurses for not understanding their new device. How could they be so stupid? You probably think this way about people you particularly disagree with. How can they do what they do? What’s wrong with them?

But the presenter argued that it was actually the designers’ responsibility not to make the medical device they wanted, but to make one that would be taken up by its end users—the Nepalese nurses—as seamlessly as possible. The less that the nurses were forced to learn, the better.

Authors Chip and Dan Heath make this point about changing all sorts of situations that are stuck:

  1. Define the audience
  2. Have a realistic goal and be as precise as possible about what achieving it will mean (remember this important point: “What looks like resistance to change is often a lack of clarity.”)
  3. Create an emotional desire for the change
  4. Make the change as easy as possible

The major problem wasn’t that nurses were using the medical devices incorrectly, but that the designers didn’t know the context and needs of the nurses well enough. They hadn’t made a product that would integrate smoothly into the nurses’ work. They didn’t understand their audience, so they didn’t make the change as easy as it could have been, and the results were tragic.

I think a helpful visual illustration here is a “desire path.” That’s where people literally wear a path into the world through using it.

Here’s a corner in Toronto showing the path people are supposed to follow (to the left—staying on the sidewalk up to the corner and then turning) and the path people do follow (to the right). The desire path has literally been worn into existence through being followed so many times.

Matthew Legge
Source: Matthew Legge

The fact that so many users are taking the route to the right (even walking right through what used to be a continuous hedge!) suggests that it’s what people want.

Desire paths are a sort of crowd wisdom, showing city planners what they could do differently. How the Nepalese nurses were using the medical devices was also a desire path of sorts, revealing information about how the device should have been built.

Of course it’s possible to force people to stop walking on desire paths. The city could put up a fence or threaten people with fines. Every nurse could be made to do hours of training and tests until they all get the intricacies of the new device as it’s designed. There could be reasons why that would be necessary. But it also makes change harder, and change is hard enough already.

It’s generally more helpful, when confronted by a problem that seems stuck, to take the crowd’s tendencies to heart. Understanding what will work for people is key to being an effective change agent.

Now consider attempts to make large-scale change in any area—take your pick: housing, unemployment, policing, health care ... What I find in these efforts is similar barriers blocking change.

These aren’t just disagreements on the issues, or even powerful entrenched interests (which are certainly there).

More could be done to have precise goals, to ensure clarity about them, to harness the power of positive emotions to spur change, and, most importantly, to understand the end-users and make change for them as easy as possible.

Instead, we get a lot of blame and moralizing against the other side, which spurs negative emotions and pushback. We get vague and imprecise statements that don’t help people to have a shared understanding of the problem and the proposed solutions. We get incomplete analyses full of jargon, which further divides people along identity and ideological lines.

I recently saw a poster for an event that said it was LGBTQQI2SAtP+ friendly. I’m imagining the designers as caring people who don’t want to exclude or unintentionally harm anyone. But if their goal includes spreading their ideas to a larger range of people (which it may not), they may want to reconsider. The more complicated the acronym gets, the less likely folks are to understand it or use it. An approach to the problem of inclusion becomes unwieldy and actually exclusive in many ways.

The well-intentioned change sought—more inclusive language—is opposed to how people generally function, much like the sidewalk builders not taking into consideration the needs of walkers: that we like to cut corners and save effort where possible.

I think this applies all the time. On all sorts of issues, someone’s passion about the change they want blocks them from realizing that they aren’t being clear or making the change simple for those who don’t share the same education or interests.

For some inspiration, consider how one particularly clever strategist, Gandhi, applied the four steps to spur a change no less daunting and massive than the independence of India.

  1. He knew his audiences: he learned about both Indians, through regular travel around the country and conversations to understand their feelings and needs, and the British.
  2. He and his colleagues set a goal that was both visionary and also precise enough that it could be communicated clearly.
  3. Much of the nonviolent activism used was symbolic—it was carefully designed to be emotionally meaningful, making a wider range of people take note and come on board.
  4. As British historian Arnold Toynbee put it, Gandhi “made it impossible for us to go on ruling India. But he made it possible for us to leave without rancour and without humiliation.” Gandhi did everything in his power to make the change as easy as possible, even for the British.

Every situation is different, and complex adaptive problems will always require new approaches, but it is often possible to overcome entrenched positions and to work together for changes, even when we don’t trust or like people on the other side.