That Which is Easiest

Generally, I find that people have a tendency to do that which is easiest.  I frequently remind myself of this axiom when confronted with organization change.  Evidence of this tendency is found everywhere. At the office it may manifest as a minimal documentation, failure to maintain status in a project management tool, a lackadaisical attitude, or reluctance to change.  In my effort to improve an organization I often will remind myself of a variation of, “You can show a horse to water, but you can’t make them drink.”  My variation, which I use to guide my behavior, is, “I’ve built the trough, filled it with water, shown where it is, and demonstrated how to drink.”

Recently, during a morning briefing we were discussing how we might go about helping the organization step up to the work needed.  I used these two thoughts in an attempt to frame up a potential solution to bridge the gap from where the people were and where we needed them. The lead for this effort vociferously disagreed with my suggestion that we needed to take into account that people general will do that which is easiest.  The response was, paraphrasing, we should be raising the bar, not dumbing it down.  The response has been on my mind for the past week.

After pondering I’ve come to the conclusion that the two are complimentary not exclusive. I maintain that generally, people have a tendency to do that which is easiest.  I realized that this axiom is more for the coach/leader. It serves as a reminder that in order to effect a change in human behavior one must find the easiest path to that change.

An example, my spouse is a special education teacher. Presently she is working with someone in the ninth grade who has reading level of second grade.  Attempting to teach this person to read at a ninth grade level by giving him a ninth grade level book would create significant resistance due to the consistent frustration that would be generated. An easier way to help this person improve his reading would lead to success. In this case she found an online reading program and works with him one on one. His scores have improved two grades in six weeks.

Another example. A client had no central program management office. The existing group was ineffective. I had been working at a department level when asked to take part in the group.  This placed me in a place where I could expand my influence. However, the level of maturity across the organization was insufficient for any kind of rapid change. Those that needed to improve would have to acquire skills while changing behavior.  Further, no documentation existed to formalize the body of knowledge and behaviors expected leaving management and project managers to make up how and what work was done.  A user guide was one part of the solution. Since I had written one for my department I slowly worked with the group to get buy in to make it general across IT.  Once this was reasonably accepted I created a training outline and schedule regular training. Though I could not compel people to attend, slowly word got out. After a few months the existence of the user guide was widely known. Those who used the user guide raised their capabilities and so the organization gained.

There are two forces at work: the leader’s needs, and the persons professionalism.  Not taking into account human nature sets up conditions for less than optimal results and possible failure. To lead implies showing the way. To “show the way’ is to communicate the desired outcome and any steps necessary to achieve the leaders goal.  On the other hand it is the responsibility of the individual to bring to the job a certain level of expertise and professional maturity.  Balancing these two forces produces the best results.

In my experience balancing these two forces is a primary skills needed by a change agent; when to show the way and when to expect professional behavior.  I have a strong ethically need to ensure I have done all that I can do when working with others to obtain a desired behavior.  This is what I mean when I use the “trough” analogy. I don’t want there to be any reason why someone with whom I’m working doesn’t perform.  I liken the approach to a classroom or training scenario where the teacher/trainer is trying to move the level of knowledge/professionalism to a higher level that is demonstrated via testing or presentation.

To expect professional behavior does not abrogate an approach to working with human nature. In fact, I view the “trough” analogy as part of providing my own high level of professional behavior.

When coupled with a higher level of professional capability true magic can happen.





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