The Rider Spins his Wheel (photo credit rykerstribe on flickr)

In my last post: Willpower to Change is Exhaustive Resource, I explored some ideas about change management. This topic is relevant for me and my team members, as we are going through major changes at work: reorganization, wider adoption of the agile practices, scaling the methodology outside of IT and in much larger context the market-place that we operate in. It helps to have some mental models to provide us with a framework to understand and adapt to these major changes.

Change Models

The model developed by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross and adopted to change management show that when change is introduced, we go through distinct reactions to it: shock, denial, frustration, depression, experiments, decisions and finally integration. It is important to know where we, and our team mates, are along this change curve.

Chip Heath and Dan Heath’s book Switch which uses the analogy of the Rider- the rational side of our brain, and the Elephant – the emotional side, as a short-hand to understand the dynamics of change efforts.  Behavioral economists Richard Thaler and H. M. Shefrin use a similar analogy – the farsighted Planner and the myopic Doer.

The Heath brothers explain that when we are looking to change, we are going up against “behaviors that have become automatic, and changing those behaviors requires careful supervision”, by our rational side. And depending on the size of the change we are making, the rational side simply gets overwhelmed and exhausts its willpower.

Many of us, have experienced this first hand. With good intentions, we embark on writing effective user stories, story tests, acceptance criteria, stories that fit a single sprint, have periodic retrospectives, write automated tests, demonstrate working software to our users, and so on. But under stress and schedule pressures, we abandon these good practices. We revert to writing technical user stories, coding only stories and testing only stories.  Sometimes, we resort to having an architecture-only sprint, data modeling sprint, analysis sprint, and then lots of coding sprints and in the end stabilization or “defects fixes” only sprints. We keep committing to stories, even though, we know we will barely finish coding, and then split stories across sprints. Automated unit tests or UI functional tests end up on the cutting floor. We cancel our demos and retrospectives, because we really need to use those 2 hours to do some more work on the stories we didn’t finish during the sprint. Sometimes, it gets so reductive, like this one candidate I was interviewing, who told me that on his agile team, the only practice they performed consistently was the daily scrum. The Heath brothers say, “anytime the six-ton Elephant and the Rider disagree about which direction to go, the Rider is going to lose. He’s completely overmatched.”  The Elephant will always seek out path of least resistance.

The Rider spins his wheels

If the elephant is hard to motivate and overwhelms the Rider, then the Rider has his own problems, too. In IT, we frequently succumb to analysis paralysis, or as one of my colleague calls it, “excessive navel-gazing”.

Jonah Lehrer, a journalist, was inspired to write a book How We Decide, precisely to understand why the Rider spins his wheels. Here is what he said during an interview on

Q:Why did you want to write a book about decision-making?

A: It all began with Cheerios. I’m an incredibly indecisive person. There I was, aimlessly wandering the cereal aisle of the supermarket, trying to choose between the apple-cinnamon and honey-nut varieties. It was an embarrassing waste of time and yet it happened to me all the time. Eventually, I decided that enough was enough: I needed to understand what was happening inside my brain as I contemplated my breakfast options. I soon realized, of course, that this new science of decision-making had implications far grander than Cheerios.

Here are some examples of our own Rider. Which agile methodology should we use – Scrum, Lean, Kanban, DSDM, XP, FDD?  What agile techniques should we try first TDD, BDD, ATDD, CI, Pair Programming, Pair Testing.  What should we spend our energies automating – at the unit, component, integration, system level? What should we emphasis first, writing effective story cards, doing better demos, running honest and open retrospectives, fix bad team dynamics, and on and on.

The Heath brothers recount a story of two professors at West Virginia University. They are health researchers who were “contemplating ways to persuade people to eat a healthier diet?”  For something like that, where do you even began?

Which foods should people stop (or start) eating? Should they change their eating behavior at breakfast, lunch or dinner? At home or in restaurants? The number of ways to “eat healthier” is limitless, especially given the starting place of the average American diet. This is exactly the kind of situation in which the Rider will spin his wheels, analyzing and agonizing and never moving forward.

After much brainstorming, the two researchers arrived at this insight:

Most Americans drink milk, and we all know that milk is a great source of calcium. But milk is also the single largest source of saturated fat in the typical American’s diet. In fact, calculations showed something remarkable: If Americans switched from whole milk to skim or 1% milk, the average diet would immediately attain the USA recommended levels of saturated fat.

But, the next question was, how do you get people to drink low-fat milk and how do you get them to stock it in their refrigerators? After all, people will drink whatever’s available in the house (path of least resistance, no one’s going to run out to the store to buy whole milk – the Elephant is lazy).  Researchers figured out, “you don’t need to change drinking behavior. You need to change purchasing behavior.”

After an effective ad campaign, the two researchers were able to increase the market share of low-fat milk from 18% to 41% and it held steady after six months at 35%.  What we learn from this is:

If you want people to change, you don’t ask them to “act healthier.” You say, “Next time you’re in the dairy aisle of the grocery store, reach for a jug of 1% milk instead of whole milk.”

Many times, our reaction to change efforts is similar, for example, we might think, why can’t everyone just fall in line and just follow agile practices.  But contrary to what the trekkie-referenced title suggest it is isn’t even a question of resistance, because “what looks like resistance is often a lack of clarity.”

Oh and what happened to Mr Lehrer and his cheerios? Well, here is what he said in the same interview:

Q: What do you do in the cereal aisle now?

A: I was about halfway through writing the book when I got some great advice from a scientist. I was telling him about my Cheerios dilemma when he abruptly interrupted me: “The secret to happiness,” he said,”is not wasting time on irrelevant decisions.” Of course, this sage advice didn’t help me figure out what kind of cereal I actually wanted to eat for breakfast. So I did the only logical thing: I bought my three favorite Cheerios varieties and combined them all in my cereal bowl. Problem solved.

Sometimes, as our CIO says, it is better to “Ready, Fire, Aim”, instead of getting ready and deliberating endlessly on where to aim.  And then never getting around to firing.

So far, we have looked at 2 concepts from the Switch framework – direct the Rider and motivate the Elephant. In the next post, I will at look at the third concept – shape the Path.