Stickiness and Reinvention

Some changes in community are just sticky. I don’t mean they are physically gooey and tacky leaving a residue on the hands that takes days to remove. Rather some changes find that sweet spot where they are genuinely at people’s service, recognising their frustrations and deliver solutions to their real problems. When community solutions are sticky*, they motivate people to adopt them and sustain them in the long term. And community organisers can help leaders to design change in ways that have these sticky qualities…with a little thought and care.

English pound coins by Images-of-Money CC FlickrUber-wants

Some believe that the price will make people want the change. There is plenty of evidence that in fact cheapness is not much of an influence on the decision of community members to adopt your change. It’s important when it comes to cheese but when our fragile lifestyles need to change it’s far down the list of motives. Rather three key factors routinely motivate community members to change. These three motivate everyone so we can’t get enough of them. For any one of these three, we will willingly shell out hard earned cash. And if you threaten even one of them, resistance will be widespread. The three are control, time and self-esteem.

In the driving seat

In the end, we all want to have more freedom of action and to reduce uncertainty in our communities. There is a profound human need to feel in control of our lives and that explains why we prefer cars to trains, mobiles to landlines and owning to renting. A sense of control has a dramatic effect on our health and is at the root of our love of democracy. It also leads to some negative results such as gated communities, SUVs and neo-conservatives. If you are looking at designing a change, make sure that it gives community members more certainty about the results and reduces the levels of disruption, delay, danger, doubt and uncertainty.

London: Cycle Life by motorblog CC FlickrReducing the hassle

We all know that space-time bends round objects of huge mass such as black holes (don’t we?) but in our everyday lives, time is non-stretchy, non-bending and very finite. British urban culture has become increasingly pressurised – as employees (and carers and parents and many others) are expected to do the work of several people each – and so many community members are on the look out for behaviours that require less time. Often however it seems to take a fixed time for activities such as cycling to work, volunteering or mulching the garden. More people will adopt positive behaviours if we can reduce the hassle rate, those annoying disruptions and obstacles that prevent smooth operation. The less time we actually take, the more likely it is that people will adopt your solution.

Change that offers story potential

As every community organiser knows, people need relationships. Citizens can only find happiness and fulfilment when they give and receive positive messages in community. We are all constantly on the look out for ways to enhance the way others see us. If the change you are promoting offers to make community members more interesting, more successful, gives them higher social status or by any means helps them present their best selves, it will succeed. We shop to buy useful things and to have pleasure but we most emphatically shop for the social value of buzzing about them with friends, family or other community members. And experiences have more social value than goods; they provide more ‘story potential’. So if you are designing your community change for stickiness, aim to offer citizens ways to enhance their social standing.

Superman warns everyone to stay away from his iMac by Stuart Bryant CC FlickrAvoid Heroic Solutions

There is a bias in every man, woman or child. We see the world through our eyes alone and so overestimate the effect of our own work. Teachers overestimate the effect of knowledge and doctors the effect of treatments. For organisers, we all overestimate the effect of organising and under-estimate the power of community members’ motivation and the situational forces that affect them. We are biased to think that the change is good, that it needs spreading, has no disadvantages and rejection is wilful and stupid. Such an attitude that ‘we know best’ has no place in organising but is close to all our hearts from birth. Many ‘solutions’ do not in fact deserve to succeed; they are naive or counter-productive and by pushing them on the community as right, just and better, we fail to listen attentively and involve citizens themselves in continually reinventing the solution to their own issues.

Diffusion of Innovations

When a solution is ready, it needs to be field tested. You have to watch people doing it or using it; have a go yourself and see what you learn. Of course, working on the change with community members will throw up loads of evidence about what works and how it might work better. There is a huge diversity in every community and involving a good mix in the testing will give you a more nuanced understanding of the factors that work for each group of people. I wrote here about the bell curve of innovation adoption. Each segment of the bell curve represents a different personality from visionary, imaginative innovators (about 2.5%) who are the first to pick up on any change to those laggards (about 16%) who are more cautious and risk averse, hanging back even when the majority have made the change. Most people are in the majority most of the time, only moving to the extremes when particular issues or changes hit home.

Abbey Road by Allison Harger CC FlickrSlices with different characteristics

Let us say that you are seeking involvement in a campaign for a local road crossing. The folk who will be first to sign the petition, join the mailing list or turn out to meetings will  be innovators. Designing the campaign only around their characteristics will risk not drawing in the next group of early adopters (13.5%) who need some convincing before willingly taking action. The early and late majorities (68%) will need to gain a strong impression of a successful campaign underway before feeling able to fully support it. So each step will require you to present the case for the crossing in a distinctive way, which takes into account the stage you have reached in ‘diffusing the change’. You need to reinvent the ‘story’ of the campaign constantly, listening to those not yet involved and adapting the design and message to their characteristics.

In the end, its very difficult to change people. We are as we are for good reasons – background, culture, context, commitments – and fighting people’s hopes, needs and motivation is often a fools task. The way change is most often successful is when it morphs and shape-changes to become simpler, quicker, smaller, hipper, more powerful and yes, cheaper. Think of the mobile phone or the recycling bin – both have transformed over decades, redesigned many times to deliver the effect whilst becoming more useful and easier to use. If it increases people’s control over their lives, saves them time or at least hassle and gives them something to brag about to their peers, you will have a avalanche of change on your hands!

Next time: People only change when they know that the result will not make them look stupid or cack-handed. The envelope of their comfort has to be stretched – we’ll talk about how you can carry fearful people into battle!

*  I have adopted the term ‘sticky’ from Chip and Dan Heath’s Made to Stick and Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point. (For both see below.) But I have followed Len Robinson in Changeology  in broadening the term to include not just the wording but the whole design.


Les Robinson (2012) Changeology: How to Enable groups, communities and societies to do things they’ve never done before Greenbooks An excellent introduction to social marketing, tackling some of the key issues head on and offering evidence-rich strategies to improve your organising.

Dan Heath and Chip Heath (2008) Made to Stick – Why some ideas take hold and others come unstuck Arrow – great read about how to make your communications more effective

Malcolm Gladwell (2001) The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference Abacus This is an oldie but an absolute classic. It is the pinnacle of Gladwell’s writing and explores how information travels and ideas take root.

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