The biggest tool in your arsenal to overcome change saturation and weariness comes from the fields of behavior economics and physics.

Friction Dominates Our Lives

We are surrounded by forces that slow us down or speed us up. Friction is the force that restrains us or makes things more difficult. If we have a chance to do things without as much friction, or effort, most of us will take that opportunity.

In December 2017, Harvard Business Review published an article by Tania Luna and Jordan Cohen summarizing a concept they call the “banana principle.” In "To Get People to Change, Make Change Easy," they discuss how friction can be observed in many everyday activities. For example, if you offer people a free bowl of fruit consisting of bananas and oranges, the bananas usually get chosen first. Why? It’s simply because the bananas are easier to peel than oranges.

Luna and Cohen are not the first to have observed this. People tend to do the things they believe are easiest and require the least effort.

In the late 19th century, Italian philosopher Guillaume Ferrero may have been one of the first to define the Principle of Least Effort when he published an article in the Revue philosophique de la France et de l'étranger, developing his thesis that if humans are presented with multiple paths for any decision, they will inevitably pick the easiest.

Ferrero has been given origination credit for the concept, based on his 1894 article, but it’s always refreshing to hear new and contemporary takes on this truth. The Principle of Least Effort is important for managers to keep in mind if we are trying to get people to change. Let’s remember that any amount of friction can stop them from making the changes we want.

Friction Changes Behavior for Better or Worse

What are the positive actions we want to introduce that may be thwarted by small obstacles that create friction? How do most of us react when given multiple choices to accomplish a task, rather than one prescriptive pathway forward? It is rare for a person to protest performing a more detailed and difficult task when they are given multiple viable options to accomplish it.

Are we doing a process redesign? Take away steps. Better yet, start with zero and work your way up on the design of a process instead of attempting to weed steps out of a complicated process. What is the bare minimum needed to accomplish the goal? Instead of trying yet another persuasive speech or detailed explanation, consider making small changes to the work environment to get people to change.

Recently, positive psychologist Shawn Achor posited that even a 20-second reduction in time required for some new task or action would create a new behavior.

It is often the case that a simpler option is available when attempting to get people to perform a more difficult and detailed process. However, creating the habit of using that simpler option takes intentional effort on their end.

Or think of the reverse: How might we introduce friction so that detrimental behaviors are harder to start? Adding friction — time or effort — can slow or deter the bad behavior. Many bad habits have been created because some things have gotten so easy.

Internal motivation to put in more time and effort can be harder than removing friction. Dieting and exercise may be the perfect example. The friction exists until new mind mapping and patterns of behavior are created. Friction against diet and exercise will always be there, but should hopefully diminish with better habits cultivated through time and effort.

As we learned in physics class: If we remove friction, things will flow easier and faster. It may not be easy, but a few small steps can start us on our way. These, along with redefining roles, are essential elements one works with when reshaping culture.

Least Effort Guides Multiple Industries

From design and retail to manufacturing and mass transit, the Principle of Least Effort is well known. Think about motion-detecting sensor lights, electronic search and online ordering from DoorDash. If we need a ride to the airport, we make a few swipes across our phone screens to schedule an Uber or Lyft, all without actually speaking to anyone.

What about when we arrive at the airport? When an airline makes it easy for me not only to book and check out with minimal clicks and options, but also to change my reservations as my plans change, the lack of friction makes me want to fly with them. My luggage always arrives with me, requiring fewer decisions and actions I must take. Last-minute changes to my plans are no problem. All are resolved by logging on and clicking or tapping a few buttons, all with no change fee. It’s the Principle of Least Effort in action.

No change resources? No time? You are still better off with any new change effort if you can ask and answer for yourself and your team: How do I make this easier? How do I remove nonessential steps?

 

The pace of change is accelerating, and weariness can set in. A few commonsense steps can be the antidote.

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Dana Houston Jackson is the lead principal change adviser at 1898 & Co., part of Burns & McDonnell. A straight shooter and advocate of new thinking, Dana prides herself in simplifying the complex in a “box-poking,” 25-year career in organizational development and change management. Some of her clients include energy, utility, technology, manufacturing and construction companies, government and academia, and nonprofits.