“Please Keep Off the Grass”
There are logical reasons for a sign like that. Maybe it’s brand new grass or they’re overseeding. Maybe there’s a hole, or or other hazard that they don’t want people to walk through. In any case, the sign is there for a reason. They want you to stay on the “designated” path.
Not long ago, I came across the picture below that showed just what happens when people don’t take the path designated for them. Inevitably, a new path is created, and everyone wears a rut into the grass. So much for the nice lawn.
This photo was used to discuss the importance of good design for computer applications, but it struck me that maybe there’s another lesson to be learned from this. When you see a photo like this one, you have a couple of options of how you react.
You could see this as a failure of people to follow directions. Someone took the time to create a solid path that looks great, takes you where you want to go, and keeps your shoes clean, but folks just don’t want to follow the rules.
Or, you might see this as a failure of the sidewalk designers (is there such a job?) not understanding where people really need to go. An attempt for them to funnel you in a certain direction that doesn’t fit with your normal walking pattern, or a way to keep you from where you really want to go.
The same goes with an organization or group when you are hoping to influence them, whether it’s leading them in a project, changing culture, or getting them to accept a new idea. How often do we come in with prescribed solutions, viewpoints or ideas that we hope to get them to conform to? We want them on our “designated path” because we are the ones with the experience of what looks best, what operates the right way, or what will please the most people, right? Unfortunately, many times that designated path came from previous experience.
You just can’t assume that what worked last time will always work this time. To pick the right solution, you need to get yourself into a rut, not out of it.
So, what can you do if you find that people aren’t following the path you’ve laid out? How can you adapt and make sure that the path you are creating is one they will take?
- Before you lay out the path, take the time to observe how people are behaving – Does what you see correlate to what you have seen in the past? Is it obvious that the path you want to lay out matches the current environment? If not, you need some time to observe and make some judgments of how things are actually working before you can prescribe how they are going to work in the future. Where is the path already worn?
- Stake out the path and get feedback – Before a sidewalk has forms created to pour the concrete, someone has to either stake out the path, or paint a line in the grass to be sure it looks right. You need someone else to tell you it makes sense, so get their feedback. Lay the groundwork for the change you hope to see, and the path you intend to take. If it doesn’t fit, trust me, someone will tell you.
- Before you solidify the approach, step back and evaluate the new path – Does that path essentially follow the path that others have already been using? Is it a nice replacement for the well-worn trail that already exists? Sometimes, it’s not about changing the path itself, as it is about changing the way they interact with the path they’ve been using. Could your new direction fit nicely within the direction that people already naturally follow? If so, the creation of the new path will be accepted much quicker, and may even seem natural to the organization.
- Once the path is laid, make the new path easy and obvious – While the idea of walking on a brand new path might be appealing to some, others may just see it as a way to slow them down, or “change” them. Even if change is the goal, you have to show them the new path has more benefits than the old one. Keep communication flowing all along, and once the new path is laid out for them, find ways to encourage and reward those who use it. Find your champions and they will lead people down the new path like the Pied Piper.
To be sure, there are times when an entirely new path is needed. The old way just isn’t working, or the well-worn path is full of hazards that won’t work anymore. In that case, the rules above still apply, but the need to communicate the reasons just goes up exponentially. But, if you really want to influence and affect change, you need to look at the ruts that already exist, and see how you can adapt those to fit the audience. You need to get yourself INTO a rut, not out of it.
Have you ever implemented a change, or tried to influence an organization and found that people were just avoiding all the good work you had put together? How did you deal with this?
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