The barrier to execution has little to do with lack of awareness or good intentions.
When you rolled out your new change initiative, you may have noticed something — it wasn’t just less engaged employees that failed to follow through on the new procedures. Sadly, even some of the most genuinely engaged employees fell short too. What’s up with that?
There’s a massive gap between what we want to do and what we do. Our good intentions (or lack thereof) often don’t dictate our actions. Why?
Our brains are hardwired for inattention and inertia.
From an evolutionary perspective, our brains are still stuck in an environment that no longer exists — an environment in which inattention and inertia were especially valuable. Although less helpful today, our unconscious continues to scan for potential threats and encourages our bodies to conserve energy, just in case we need to run from a lion, tiger or bear.
Given this wiring, it’s incredibly hard to overcome inattention and inertia and initiate action unrelated to our physical safety. Thus, employees are bound to refrain from change — whether it’s the new cyber security requirements, the new terminology for the business units or anything else that you have introduced this quarter.
Most of our mental bandwidth actually lies beyond conscious thought.
The new book The Power of Fifty Bits: The New Science of Turning Good Intentions Into Positive Results digs into this concept. “Fifty bits” refers to the brain’s bandwidth limitations for conscious thought. Each second, the brain processes about 10 million bits of information. However, the prefrontal cortex, which directs our conscious thinking and acting, can only process about 50 bits per second of these 10 million bits. The other 99.99995 percent of our bandwidth is allocated to unconscious processing.
So, the gap between what we want to do and what we actually do arises because unconscious forces take hold, regardless of our good intentions.
Strategic nudges can close the gap between our good intentions and our actions.
“Fifty bits design” is a type of behavior design that aims to help people do things they already want to do. It recognizes that people have good intentions; they just need help acting on those good intentions — ways to move beyond their brain’s primitive wiring.
The reality in so many organizations today is that people have a horrendous time focusing due to heavy workloads, round-the-clock connectivity, continuous partial attention and multi-tasking. Employees spend more time completing activities than concentrating on top priorities or working on solving big problems. They don’t just need to be made more aware of a desired change or convinced of the need for it — they need carefully constructed nudges that help them activate those desirable changes.
The Power of Fifty Bits introduces seven simple strategies that help encourage conscious thought, coaxing our brains to take action. These strategies help us escape our default state of inattention and inertia. Reaching far beyond mere education or ease of use, they include:
Make people consciously choose between options.
Lock in good intentions
Encourage people to make decisions now about future choices.
Let it ride
Make the desired option the default, allowing people to opt out if they wish.
Get in the flow
Meet people where their attention is already likely to go.
Reframe the choices
Set the context to influence people when they consider options and choices.
Link the desired choice or behavior with something people already enjoy or are engaged in.
Make the desired choices seamless and easy; make those choices not desired more difficult.
These prompts can be used independently or in conjunction with one another. Regardless of which or how many are employed, this type of behavior design helps employees channel their attention, motivation and skills to act more consciously and appropriately. It’s powerful because it takes our brains’ wiring into account.
This overturns a common misconception about employees in times of change.
When corporate leaders learn about Bob Nease’s fifty bits design, they start to see why past change initiatives failed. They begin to grasp a critical fact — employees are not actively choosing to resist change; they are not the enemy. Rather, it is the wiring of their brains that is the main force preventing change from being adopted.
When taught to use the fifty bits strategies, leaders help employees work around the brain’s predisposition for inaction. This helps set up a climate of partnership within the company instead of one of opposition. Blending fifty bits behavior design with smart targeted creative provides a path to action that can produce substantial results in organizations seeking change.