THE BLOG

Change Your Corporate Culture -- Without Nagging

03/19/2013 05:00 pm ET | Updated May 19, 2013

Our new house has a breakfast bar just after you walk in the front door, tempting you to drop anything you're carrying as you enter the house. Since a mess of keys, magazines and toys there is visible, ugly, and in the path of spray from the kitchen sink, it quickly became my mission to keep that counter clear.

It doesn't sound too difficult since only two people in the house leave things there. Yet, for months, I failed.

I did all the right things. I articulated a positive end state, we agreed upon the benefits of it, and we committed to new behaviors. I'm not saying I launched a full corporate change program at home, but I tried hard. And I don't want to brag or anything, but I'm a guy who does behavioral change for a living.

Did I mention that I failed -- miserably?

It would be nice to blame the people who wouldn't cooperate, but half of them were me. I was the one who wanted the change, and I failed repeatedly to bring my behavior into alignment with it. This was irrefutable: every evening, half the content in the junk pile was mine.

And so, every evening, I'd categorize each piece in the junk pile and move it to its proper place, all while blathering on about keeping the counter clean. Bag It and Nag It: a labor-intensive, band-aid solution that lasted until about 10 a.m. the next day.

This probably sounds familiar if you've tried to change group behaviors at work. Maybe you're trying to get people to interact more respectfully, or to be more customer-focused, or to file reports on time. You assemble everybody, agree on the future state, generate a plan and some excitement, and then... nothing changes. So you name the behavior, put up posters about it in conference rooms, and make it a standing item at the weekly meeting. Bag It and Nag It. Unfortunately, if you're honest with yourself, you see little progress, from "them" and from you. But at least you're working on it and you can feel good about your efforts toward your change program.

Let's get back to my problematic counter. As it turned out, my solution didn't require a change program... or a patented approach to collaborative enablement, or a cloud-based database of competencies and values, or any other such impressive thing. Instead, we put four bar stools along the length of the counter.

Boring, right?

It was indeed boring -- and accidental. We'd been shopping for awhile and finally discovered a set of stools that we liked. The day I put them in place, the counter cleared up, our miscellany found new homes, and my Bag It and Nag It routine evaporated. Although we don't eat at the breakfast bar often, although there are no new placemats occupying space in front of the stools, although the counter is still just as close to the front door and just as open and available as ever, the change happened anyway, without fanfare.

It didn't take a program. It only took a nudge.

Previously, you entered the house and saw a large, convenient location to drop anything on hand. Now, you enter the house and see a place where someone might sit and enjoy a drink or meal. Whether or not anyone is sitting in them, the stools teach you the purpose of the space. Now, you're no more inclined to throw car keys and mail on the counter than you would be to drop them in a flowerpot or to toss them in the fridge. That's not what the space is for.

Let's go back to the workplace. Remember that change you were trying to make? Remember the meetings, the jazzy posters, the constant attention, and the blossoming change program? Remember the lack of progress?

Don't misunderstand; I support well-managed programs. Launching a product, growing a manufacturing line, and entering a new market require strategizing, planning, publicizing and energizing. Everyone needs to understand the goal and get on the same page about the plan. That's the stuff of good change programs.

But changing behavioral patterns -- changing culture -- is different. It's a subtle, gradual process. Current behavior grows from previous environmental cues; people mostly behave in the way the environment has taught them they should. If conversations aren't respectful, disrespectful speaking has been modeled. If focus isn't on customers, another group has been demanding it. If reports aren't filed on time, something else has been more important. Trying to change behaviors like these with a buzz word, a plan, a party, and a program is a futile recipe for Bag It and Nag It. You'll get busy and accomplish little.

The trick, instead, is to find the environmental "nudges" that will cause the system to teach the new behaviors -- to figure out where to put the bar stools. Maybe this means repeatedly having some highly visible, respectful conversations. Maybe it means incentivizing customer request resolution times instead of data entry. Maybe it means moving a due date out of the busiest week of the month.

In my work, "placing the bar stools" often translates into introducing new behaviors that complement rather than conflict with the current state -- things like improved decision-making processes. Such changes must be acceptable both in terms of visible and invisible requirements, which is no small feat as survival and power dynamics come into play. But it can be done.

When we succeed, change occurs subtly and without fanfare. It's not a program; it's a nudge. People adopt new behaviors, they forget old ones, and it doesn't feel like we did much. It's hard, in fact, to brag about it at all.

So, how can you nudge culture without becoming a nag? That depends upon your current culture and your desired change; it's something you must discover yourself. But one thing is certain: If you're running around every day playing Bag It and Nag It, spending more and more time on your change program, and getting nowhere, then it's probably time to start looking for bar stools.