Getting Leverage for Change

I just saw a great post on Seth’s blog about challenging convention.  I really admire how he generates cool insights and puts them simply so they are easy to remember.  As I was reading his tips for challenging convention, it occurred to me that there’s a deeper issue below such challenges.  He refers to the convention as “it” and I began to wonder about the possibilities of “it”.

leverageOne of my favorite movie lines is “there could be anything in there!” (from: A Christmas Story), and this statement is so true here.  It really matters in his third point about leverage.  If “it” is a simple change to a control knob, your leverage challenge is relatively straightforward and concrete.  If “it” is a new paradigm of consumption, your leverage challenge requires a whole different level of challenging.  Some types of leverage are more powerful than others, but most importantly you should use the right one for the task at hand.

For example: are you trying to challenge the convention of a controlling music volume (Seth’s example)?  By shifting the convention from a physical knob to a digital slider you can focus on the physical parameters of the human/machine interaction.  But if a person is not already of the mindset to interact with music via a computer, your users will experience a disconnect.  The more effective leverage point would be to focus on the mindset of listening to music via a computer first, then shifting your focus to the digital interaction.

I believe this is what Apple did with the first iPod.  The early generation machines still had familiar physcial controls.  Now the iPhone has a completely digital touch screen.  If they had not first gotten people to listen to music via the iTunes system, I would think the adoption of the touch screen may have struggled.

For more ideas about leverage points, Dana Meadows provides a great spectrum in her article: Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System.  Check out the summary on Wikipedia.

Infectious Action

Here in Palo Alto there’s a movement afoot.  The folks over at the Stanford are hoping to get a portion of downtown Palo Alto to become a pedestrian mall.  Check out the post on Metacool by Diego Rodriguez for more details and to join in the action.

I love that they have a class called Creating Infectious Action (CIA) there.  Based on the recent scare caused by the swine flu, infectious transmission of very small things is a force to respect.  I loved Stephen King’s view of this topic (The Stand) as it plays on all of the big fears involved in such an outbreak.  The point is, if you want to make change happen, understanding how this dynamic works is like being a change magician.

Damon Centola at MIT has done some great research to point out how social networking theory needs a bit of a makeover.  In short, the original “small world” theory (Granovetter, 1973) proposed that people who don’t know each other very well can spread behaviors, information and diseases through a dynamic called long ties.  This appears to hold up just fine with simple contagions that can be passed between two people with no other effort (like the flu), but not to hold up if the contagion being passed requires 2 or more people to reinforce it.  Think of it like being a carrier of a flu virus which requires you also to kiss someone else in 10 minutes to activate the infection.  If you catch the bug, but don’t kiss someone within the time limit, the bug dies out and there’s no spread.

Complex Contagion Bridge

For something like the Palo Alto pedestrian mall to come to life, there’s quite a lot of reinforcement that needs to happen, long ties are too weak in this case.  It’s a complex contagion that requires conversation, discussion, influence, and discernment.  In order for it to take hold, a person has to first “catch” the idea via one of the hundreds of people posting it on Facebook or a blog (long ties/small world) and then they have to discuss it with people they know well (strong/high bandwidth ties).

According to Damon, complex contagions operate under four social mechanisms:

1. Strategic complementarity (huh?)… that is, several complimentary factors in play at the same time. Like how technology and cost go together to support innovation.  Until costs come down, some technologies are not enough to create action.

2. Credibility… this is the “everybody’s doing it” influence factor at work.   Research by Chip and Dan Heath shows how hearing the same thing from multiple sources helps get something to “stick”.

3. Legitimacy… if close friends do something together, “innocent bystanders” feel more able to join in.

4. Emotional Contagion… ever feel the vibe of a big crowd and just go for it?  That’s this one.

So don’t just let Facebook do your work with a simple post.  You have to mix it up with people mano a mano, get some demonstrations going, and experience live interaction to get a real change to take place.

Pondering feedback, goals, and transparency

27258052_3e374c654e_mEver notice how just knowing something is real can change your behavior?  Like when you look in a mirror and notice a piece of food from lunch stuck in your teeth?  Or you’re cruisin’ down the highway only to glance at the speedometer and notice you are going 20 MPH over the speed limit?  Most people react suddenly in these cases and make adjustments.

I find this is especially true when two other conditions are present: a clear goal which helps you know what feedback to value, and transparency of this goal (and progress toward it), which helps others help you maintain your commitment and keep you honest.

I just had a great chat with a new friend, Kate Niederhoffer, about how to put metrics in the hands of people inside organizations, along the lines of how biofeedback helps people make good health care decisions. Like how Cardionet puts a device in your chest that tracks and reports information about your heart so you can act BEFORE a big problem and get medical intervention to keep you in good shape.  For a deeper read on metrics in social systems check out Kate’s blog, social abacus.

So how can we use these ideas to help people in organizations get information early enough to act in ways that keep things in line?  So much of what is happening is subjective and hard to capture, but the more clearly we state our goals, and tap into people around us, the easier it is to recognize patterns and adjust our behaviors.

One company that is on to this issue in a big way is Rypple.  They’ve built a web-based feedback platform that can help you ask questions and aggregate input.  Then you can discuss that input with a few advisors and make adjustments in your behavior.  This is just the tip of the iceberg and I expect they will have many more cool features to make this process even easier. What if Facebook or Twitter provided more aggregation tools based on all of the input you gather from your friends and followers?  How would this change your behavior?

One more thought: organizations are so complex, how can we help people gather feedback from many streams and see patterns in easy to understand images (like your teeth in the mirror)?  Check out We Feel Fine for some inspirational ideas.