Changing attitudes: How catalytic mechanisms make desired behaviour automatic and easier

Changing attitudes: How catalytic mechanisms make desired behaviour automatic and easier


Reduce the cost of electricity after 6pm and let customers know about the cost savings potential. Cost-conscious people do their laundry and run their dishwashers in the evening and the power company defers the need to build a new power plant by reducing the peak demand.

It’s voluntary, so compliance is unpredictable. As you can see, these catalytic mechanisms invite or require people to behave in a certain way via some kind of structure, incentive or penalty. The most effective ones are difficult or impossible to work around, like the TV that is hardwired into the bicycle instead of just plugged into a bicycle-run generator. (Of course, that won’t stop your kids from going over to the neighbours to watch TV or watching it on their computer.)

Now that your brain has got the hang of it, let’s come up with some catalytic mechanisms that could help us in the project management world. Here are a few ideas I had while mulling this over. See if you can come up with at least one idea of your own in each area.

Problem catalytic mechanism intended result potential negatives

How can we assure that everyone is clear on the overall project priorities that we’re using to make trade-offs among quality, features, cost, schedule and other critical success criteria? Pop up a small “game” on the computer screen when email is launched, with the priorities floating about in random order and require people to put them in the correct order before gaining email access for the first time each week.

Each person makes the dozens of decisions and trade-offs in their control in alignment with the project priority decision list. Everyone is working to optimise the project according to the same criteria. People know the priorities, but they don’t consider them when making their decisions. People stop using email. (Hey, that’s not necessarily a negative!)

How can we keep everyone focused on the project goal while they’re swimming in the details of their daily tasks?

Use the project goal and a compelling picture as the screensaver on all team members’ computers. Daily reminder of the project goal keeps people focused on the big picture. As a result, they make better decisions about how to achieve the overall goal.

People stop paying attention to the message. (Maybe change the image daily to keep it fresh.) How can we get people to update the status of their action items regularly?

Schedule a tedious “Action Item Only” status update meeting, separate from the team meeting each week, but cancel it on weeks when everyone has completed their updates. Announce the names of those who have not done their updates at the start of each action item review meeting that doesn’t get cancelled. Peer pressure to reduce the need to attend these kinds of meetings quickly gets everyone doing their updates.

Too few people playing along to pressure the others to update their action items. People might rather have the tedious meeting than do their updates. How can we keep people who are working in geographically separated locations feeling connected to each other?

Hold the team meetings in a virtual worlds multi-player online game environment like Second Life. Have everyone meet to hang out and play a game for the first 10 minutes of each team meeting. Give a prize for the highest score.

People show up on time to the on-line meetings, get actively engaged, and have a chance to enjoy some fun together. Some people even show up early to get the game started, or hang out afterward. Some people might not be into the virtual worlds gaming scene.

Some computers might not have the power to handle the graphics of virtual reality programmes. How can we get people to meetings on time?

Bring a stack of $1 bills to the team meetings (enough so that, if everyone showed up, they’d each get a couple of dollars) and split it among whoever’s there at the meeting start time.

People show up on time and get a little cash bonus that puts a smile on their face. It costs a $100 or so each month. The thrill wears off after a while, so change the incentive occasionally. Maybe do a raffle of a bigger item each week instead.

How can we keep the voice of the end customer real and present for our design team? Pressure sensors on the bathroom seats that activate video clips of interviews with real customers on screens mounted on the door to the stall.

Daily contact with end-user perspectives influences design choices in alignment with delighting the customer rather than individual agendas. Not all people will see the humour in this in practice, and some won’t even see the humour in this in this article.

Catalytic mechanisms without a wiring diagram

There are a lot of catalytic mechanisms that don’t require you to convert your stairs to a piano or wire your bike into your television. Here are some I have been using regularly for years:

• I put reminders on my calendar of things I want to remember to do, like annual goal setting and monthly updates of my website.

• I publicise my commitments to personal growth and ask a friend to check up on my progress by a certain date.

• I hang paper reminders I get from doctors, dentists and such on the month that they’re due on a paper calendar in my bathroom, so when I flip to that month I see the document.

• When I worked in an office with other people, I always kept a bowl of chocolate on my desk to encourage people to stop by and talk with me about what was happening on the project.

• Back in the days when I actually had an office with a door I kept it open at all time (except when having top secret chats), and made sure a small round table and two comfy chairs were clearly visible and inviting people to drop in to share anything on their minds.

The whole point of catalytic mechanisms is to make desired behaviour automatic, or at least much easier than undesirable alternatives. After immersing myself in thinking about this topic for the past couple of days, I’m starting to see possibilities for them everywhere. Send me your ideas for catalytic mechanisms in your work and your life! Maybe we’ll even start the Wikipedia page.

  • A Tell report / By Kimberly Wiefling
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