Shape The Path

We embrace change all the time

Humans are not averse to change.  Some changes we embark on gleefully, but with some changes – we struggle mightily.  This is true whether the change is at personal, organizational, or at community level, or whether it is big or small.  We don’t shy away from big changes, as a matter of fact, those types of changes happen all the time.  For example, a decade ago, I decided to change jobs, change states, while expecting our first son.  We decided to take on three huge changes simultaneously.   And yet, small change like getting to the gym 3-4 times a week, confounds me.  This is despite learning from books like Brain Rules which shows that exercise is the closest thing we have to fountain of paradise.  Exercise not only keeps us physically fit, but it reduces diseases, increases life expectancy, and keeps us mentally sharp.

The book, Switch, provides a simple framework, which can make change stick.  Of these, I looked at 2 ideas  – one to direct the Rider, the rational side of our brains (see blog post: Resistance is Futile) .  The other is to motivate the Elephant, the emotional side of our brains (see blog post: Willpower to Change is an Exhaustive Resource).  To this, the Heath brothers add a third idea – Shape the Path.

Wretched is, as Wretched does

The brothers recount a study in their book, done by Brian Wansink, who runs the Food and Brand Lab at Cornell University.  Moviegoers are handed a free bucket of popcorn and a drink in exchange for answering some questions after the movie.  What the unsuspecting moviegoers didn’t know was this:

There was something unusual about the popcorn they received.  It was wretched.  In fact, it had been carefully engineered to be wretched.  In fact, it had been popped five days earlier and was so stale that it squeaked when you ate it.  One moviegoer later compared it to Styrofoam packing peanuts, and two others, forgetting that they’d received the popcorn for free, demanded their money back.

(Did researchers actually had to produce wretched popcorn, isn’t theatre popcorn generally wretched to begin with?).

The moviegoers got either of two size buckets – the so called medium or large.  But these sizes were so huge that there was seemingly inexhaustible supply of popcorn.  Everyone got their own bucket so they did not have to share.  The question the research was trying to answer was “would somebody with a larger inexhaustible supply of popcorn eat more than someone with a smaller inexhaustible supply?”

As part of research protocol, the researchers had weighed the before and after weight of the bucket.  So what were the results? Surprise, surprise:

People with the large buckets ate 53% more popcorn than people with the medium size.  That’s equivalent of 173 more calories and approximately 21 extra hand-dips into the bucket.

Brian Wansink changed other details, like cities, or the kind of movie they were watching, but that didn’t change the outcome.  People were eating stale popcorn, whether they were hungry or not.  And they were eating more popcorn, if they had a bigger bucket.

The Heath brothers conclude that if you want the moviegoers to eat less popcorn, you can go the hard change route, which is to worry “about their knowledge or their attitudes”.  That is to say, you direct the Rider or motivate the Elephant.  Or you can make it an easy change by simply “shrinking people’s buckets”.  That is – shape the Path.

Shape the Path in software development

The Poppendiecks in their book, Lean Software Development state the importance of situation or environment, they paraphrase quality gurus Joseph Juran and Edward Deming:

It was once thought that factory workers personally caused quality defects, and if they would only be more careful, there would be fewer defects.  Then, we learned from the quality movement in the 1980s that less than 20 percent of all quality defects are under the worker’s control; the rest are rooted in the prevailing systems and procedures, which are under management control, not worker control.

In software development the same probably holds true.  The root cause for the defects in our software has less to do with individuals and more to do with our processes and procedures.  What we tend to think of a people problem is usually an environment or situation problem.  As part of agile process, then  the emphasis is placed on removing impediments.  And that is why, one of the three questions in daily Scrum is “what is getting in my way”.  This is an attempt to constantly shape and reshape the Path, so it bypasses having to constantly worry about the knowledge and the attitudes of the team members.  ScrumMasters know very well, that to make people more productive, impediments have to be constantly identified and removed.

The Heath brothers say, ” when you shape the Path, you make change more likely, no matter what’s happening with the Rider and Elephant.”

Change is possible, but, you have to approach it from 3 angles: “direct the Rider, motivate the Elephant, and shape the Path“.  And if all 3 elements are present at one time than “dramatic change can happen even if you don’t have lots of power or resources behind you.”