Search

PODCAST EPISODE 44: LORAN NORDGREN | AUTHOR, PROFESSOR, KELLOGG SCHOOL OF MANAGEMENT





Anyone who has ever tried to implement change knows that even the best of ideas often fail. While our first inclinations are to make the ideas more appealing and add more value, this often neglects the other important variable: the existing barriers to the change. Loran Nordgren, bestselling author and Professor at the Kellogg School of Management, says there are four frictions that impede people from accepting change. In his book, The Human Element: Overcoming the Resistance that Awaits New Ideas, Loran suggests that we can make change more aerodynamic if we also focus on anticipating and removing these barriers to change.


Here are my four big takeaways from the conversation:

  1. We focus so much on the why and not about the how.

  2. People need roadmaps to change.

  3. What leaders may perceive as apathy is often ambiguity of action.

  4. Identify potential frictions to change ahead of time - it’s much more difficult once the change has been rolled out.

I had the pleasure of reading Loran’s book a few months ago and it honestly changed the way I approached / approach behavior change - I know you'll find this interview and his book equally fascinating.


TAKE A LISTEN TO THE PODCAST:

iTunes

Spotify

Google Podcasts

Tunein

Stitcher


What was your biggest takeaway from this episode?


CONNECT WITH LORAN...

on LinkedIn


READ THE BOOK…

The Human Element: Overcoming the Resistance that Awaits New Ideas


LEARN MORE …

about Loran Nordgren


SPREAD THE WORD

Leave us a review


TRANSCRIPT

Loran: They love the idea. They believe the data, they believe the evidence, they believe everything you're saying is true, but let's also imagine it failed. Like why would that be? But the value of this process really comes from trying to find what are the one or two particularly acute impediments to change.


Aaron: I'm Aaron Levy. And I have this vision of a workplace where your manager doesn't suck. Where instead your manager is your coach helping you to reach your full potential at work. I founded Raise The Bar, wrote Open, Honest and Direct, and started this podcast to help companies transform their workplace to a place where both the company and employee succeeds.


In this podcast, I get to interview leaders who built high-performing teams, and learn from them on what it takes to unlock a team with potential.


Today, we're lucky to have Loran Nordgren, professor at Kellogg School of Management and bestselling author of The Human Element: Overcoming the Resistance that Awaits New Ideas, which spent multiple weeks on the Wall Street Journal bestseller list. I had the pleasure of reading Loran’s book a few months ago, and it honestly changed the way I approached and continue to approach change in the workplace. He's on a mission to use behavioral science to make leaders and organizations better, and in today's episode, he talks to us about his book, about the things that hold back people from making change and how, as a leader, you can start to ask just one or two questions to make change more efficient with your team.


It's a fascinating conversation. Loran is a fascinating person, and I know you're gonna enjoy.


Aaron: Loran, thank you for coming on and making time to share a little bit about your book The Human Element, and the work you do. I can say I am a huge fan. We met several years ago on a panel together, and then a good friend sent me your book and I read it.


And I just geeked out on all of the things human behavior in here. And you just do such an amazing job of not only sharing details of how to get people to be ready to adopt change but in a way that I hadn't honestly seen before. And for those of you who are listening, Loran’s book is The Human Element: Overcoming the Resistance that Awaits New Ideas, and in it, he talks about kind of why and how, the things that are barriers to getting people to change, is where we should focus our energy and attention. And, and so maybe that's where I'd love to start with you.


As a way to get people to say yes to a new idea or innovation, you focus not on making something look better or heightening the appeal of it, but you focus on the frictions that hold people back from that. Can you describe a little bit about why that's the direction that you focused on?


Loran: Yeah, and it is great to be here. It's really wonderful to reconnect with you. So the focus is really born out of my practitioner work and I felt like I was stumbling upon a habit of the mind that felt consequential, and it felt like something I wasn't hearing a lot of people talk about. And it's this idea that it seems like we are all operating on this very deep assumption - and it is so deep, in fact, that I don't even think we are really aware of its of its presence - and it's the intuitive belief that the way you get someone to embrace an idea, change, whatever this new thing may be is we think our job is to be elevators of appeal, to make things more attractive, more magnetic.


And it's sort of this view that eventually if we raise attraction, appeal, energy, high enough, at some point, people are gonna get over the line. And. that's not wrong. That focus is important. That conventional view is important. But it's really only half of the equation. You know, anyone with any kind of economic background will know this idea of both costs and benefits.


And it seems like when it comes to the process of innovation, change, sales, marketing, we think our job is to be benefit-value-creators. And what people don't think about is the barriers, the hurdles, the costs that hold people back. And one of the ways we try and get at this human habit of the mind.


So, there's some language we use to describe this and we talk about this strategy of elevating appeal and benefits as fuel; using fuel to elevate appeal and give our ideas energy. And we refer to the barriers that get in the way as frictions. And, so an early real simple thought experiment around this was probably, asked thousands of people now, a seemingly very simple question, which is ‘what is it that makes a bullet fly?’ So a bullet like, breaks the sound barrier. It can travel for nearly two miles. It's incredibly precise. And, you know, it's sort of extraordinary that this very technologically simple device can achieve that level of power and precision.


How does that happen? What gives it that thrust? And if you ask people that question, you will find out that there is basically only one answer to that question. And what people will say is gunpowder and, yeah, it's not that gunpowder is the wrong answer. Like, gunpowder is the reason for a bullet's extraordinary velocity, but it is a woefully incomplete answer of course, because that's just one side of it.

It is equally true that the reason a bullet is able to fly so far and so accurate over such great distance is because it's aerodynamic. So a bullet has been optimized over a tremendous trial and error to reduce the frictions operating against it. And for a bullet, that primary one is drag or wind resistance.


And, that intuitive answer to me really speaks to this habit of the mind. This idea that we instinctively think in fuel, and fuel is good, and it is important. Like without fuel, ideas, initiatives, innovations, and products are inert, but in that fixation, we tend to neglect the other half of the equation.


And so what I've been thinking a lot about in essence is how do we make products, ideas, initiatives, more aerodynamic? How do we foresee the frictions and remove them from the change we're trying to bring into the world.


Aaron: What's so fascinating about this is like, and I'm curious about your perspective, is human nature, you talk about when we're trying to change others and, or bring about innovation, we think in fuel, and that's it's like an aha that you don't realize until you hear it for the first time. And I got that when I heard your book. And again, when you're sharing it here. And then I think about how we as human beings, especially in the workplace, when we look at problems, we don't think about what works, we think about what's broken, and what are the barriers? So like, it's, it's almost like two contrasting ways of thinking. And why then, when we talk about creating change, do we think in fuel versus thinking in frictions?


Loran: Hmm. Yeah, that's really interesting. So could you give me an example?


Aaron: Yeah. I think about like positive psychology and how that was born about psychologists looking at what really works with human beings that have overcome illnesses versus let's look at what's broken and, and fix it. Let's give them medicine to fix what's, what's broken. And so I feel like a lot of times when we look at a project, we'll look at okay, what didn't work versus what really did work and how do we feel more of it.


And so that's kind of like the mindset my brain was going when you just shared your friction.


Loran: Yeah. And, and I think in that sense that, that, yeah, this is a really important point because when we think about this notion of the fuel based mindset, I don't mean to suggest that people aren't hypersensitive to problems and issues and barriers.


We absolutely are. And, for the behavioral science folks, I mean, loss aversion would be a foundational concept that you could connect that observation to. I think that the notion is not that we don't prioritize problems. But rather, this is really speaking to the implementation side of change.


And so when we think about how do we go about addressing that problem, that is where I think this fuel based mindset and the problems associated with it really come into existence. So if I'm on a committee that's thinking about how to create a better business school experience, I completely agree with you that probably the fixation will be on what are some of the negative comments and reviews? What are these problems? How do we address them? And, and this notion of frictions being the neglected side, are really at this stage of how do we go about fixing them? Because my guess is, what we are gonna think about is, you know, how do we add another blade to the razor?


If you know what I mean? Like, how do we go about maybe, you know, maybe we need Glossier images on the leave behinds or it's really like the solving of the problem tends to focus on appeal and benefits. But yeah, it's a, it's a really nice observation that we focus on problems. It's really about the solving of them is where we're really often seeing just one half of the problem.


Aaron: And I think it's what I'm hearing is it's a layer deeper, right? It's looking at yeah, how do we actually solve that problem? And as human beings, we usually jump to the, like the first thing that comes to mind. Right. Well, let's do more of this. Let's add another blade to the razor.


Let's, you know, put a better sticker on this to make it look nicer. But what you're talking about are these, these frictions, and we've said this a couple of times, these frictions, and in your book, you talk about four specific frictions: inertia, effort, emotion, and reactance. Can you give us like a 30 second rundown of those?


So, so those who are listening can kind of just get a perspective of what we mean when we're talking about frictions that can hold back a change.


Loran: Yeah, absolutely. So it, it's helpful to think about the anatomy of an idea. So you might think of any idea. And when I say idea again, this could be a product, it could, it's just something new, a change, initiative, a new social movement, whatever that thing is you can think of any new idea of having four fundamental dimensions and each one of those has a corresponding friction.


So one dimension of any new idea is the, the degree of change, this innovative idea represents. Like, what are, are we talking about something transformative, something we've never seen before, or are we talking about a slight tweak? And the answer to that question will determine the level of inertia that inhabits the idea.

So the first friction is inertia and inertia captures the idea that for the human mind. So we tend to favor the familiar over the unfamiliar. And that unfortunately is a nearly ever present friction for leaders and innovators, because think about at some level, what change represents, like what you, as the innovator are attempting to do is you're trying to get people to embrace something new.


And the idea of inertia is that the bigger the change, the greater the resistance. And that resistance often has nothing to do with the evidence, the quality of the idea itself. It's the precisely, the transformative nature of the idea, the unfamiliarity that creates the resistance. And of course I could deep dive into all of these things.

The second dimension of any new idea. So first is the change we are talking about big or small. The bigger it is, probably the more inertia inhabits the idea. All new ideas have implementation costs. You know, if you're trying to get people to embrace a new technological tool, well, they have to learn how to do it. They have to learn about it, et cetera.


The greater the cost of action, the greater the resistance. So the second friction we talk a lot about is effort or effort-based friction. And this captures the idea that humans are hyper, hyper hypersensitive to effort expenditure. The greater the effort, the greater, the resistance. Of the frictions, this is often the one, I think it is often the most powerful. It may be the one we most intuitively understand because things like in the marketing space, one click shopping like the success of Amazon. In fact, the whole evolution of how Americans buy goods is really all following this path of least resistance process.


The third dimension of any idea is about the reactions it creates. We want our ideas to produce positive reactions, excitement, hope, et cetera. But even great ideas can produce negative emotional responses like uncertainty, fear, embarrassment. The third friction is what we call emotional friction and emotional friction is the idea…so it's the notion that even if I believe that this is a good idea, often there are emotions, like fear, anxiety that hold me back. And when that is the case, often unquestionably good ideas will never get off the ground.


So it's just like the other day I was thinking about walking into a guitar shop and, you know, I've never picked up a guitar, even though I think being a guitar player is one of the coolest things you can be. Like, no one has to convince anyone that being a musician is a cool idea. But part of what has always held me back from that process is maybe what we might call something like the ‘fear of the uninitiated’, the embarrassment of walking in there and not knowing the terrain and looking dumb and all that sort of thing. And that's a good example of what emotional friction is.

The final dimension of any new idea really captures the relationship between the innovator and the audience. So does the audience, the people who you want to embrace change, do they feel like they have come up with this idea on their own? Do they feel like they've picked this idea up on their own volition or do they feel like this is being imposed upon them?


And when change feels imposed the more reactance that inhabits the idea. So reactance is the, the, the simple but powerful idea that when humans feel pressured to change very often, their reaction is to push back against change. So that's the sort of model and that model is helpful for diagnosing because ideally we are trying to find the frictions before they occur.


So you can ask, is the change big or small? What's the cost of implementation? What are some of the negative emotions that it might create? And from the audience's perspective, is this their idea or yours? Do they feel forced to change?


Aaron: Yeah, and I like what you just said that this is a diagnostic tool before you actually initiate the change, right?


Like there are questions to be asking yourself before the change happens, because I can tell you, like five clients right now who are saying, hey, we need to get our people on board with this change. But they've already rolled out the change. And so I guess maybe I'll go there, is when an organization or someone comes to you saying we've already rolled out the change, but we need to get other people on board with it.


And we need to like, remove those frictions. How do you then diagnose and help them start to think about how to support the change once they're already through it, because I think people are gonna be listening to this and be like, well, I've already done some things and I, I didn't ask these questions.

What do I do now?


Loran: Yeah. and as I'm sure you'll relate to in your work and because it's what I often see in my practitioner work often I'm getting called in precisely as you say, like once the thing didn't go well. Yeah, and broadly, I mean, this to me is one of the, the most understandable - so I don't say this with any arrogance - one of the most understandable, but most problematic human intuitions, which is, we always just wanna like begin the work and hope for the best.


Honestly, it's sort of a path of least resistance problem. Like let's just jump in. And so always this analysis is the best time is before you create change, because once you launch, if there are important frictions that await you now the parking brake is up, right, now you're spinning the wheels.


It's not that we can't do good work, but we've changed the degree of difficulty. So it's always good to do a friction analysis before you implement, but once you implement them, it's still very much the same process where you're trying to figure out what are the things that are holding people back.


Sometimes now there is an additional friction, which is the rollout. The implementation process has created additional layers, but even if, if we're doing it at this point still some of the frictions that you anticipated could have anticipated perhaps at the beginning are still there. And what we are attempting to do is identify them and then ask ourselves how can we remove them from the process.


And so if you were thinking about, oh, I'm already midstream, or the project has begun and it's not going well, we can still do this analysis. Sometimes the implementation has created its own frictions, but we can, we can undo that. It just takes a little bit more work.


Aaron: Yeah, that makes sense. It's still worthwhile. It's not like, okay, we're, we're beyond the point of, of helping. One of the things I was wondering as I was reading this and taking this from the people side of business and, some of what you share is talking about, like how do, how do you market an idea? How do you market innovation? And I know you also look at the people side of the business and how do these frictions and these principles - I'd almost think about them of how to approach change, how do they apply to the way you would advise or support organizations in leading and support let's say a manager or a team in leading others in leading each other - how do these principles apply in that direction?


Loran: Yeah, the specific application can take countless forms. But what we are trying to do is to identify what are the forces that are holding our idea back?

And the good news is that, very often, sometimes work has to be done. Sometimes this requires deeper insight, ethnography, perspective taking, but oftentimes it is simply because we have blind spots for friction. They're kind of hiding in plain sight.


And just as a, as a very practical tip, often the thought experiment I like to play is I'll ask folks to say, let's assume for a second, two things are true. Number one, so you unveiled the initiative and people love the idea. They love the idea. They believe the data, they believe the evidence, they believe everything you're saying is true, but let's also imagine it failed. Like why would that be? Like, if you had to imagine some barriers, some things that are holding them back, what might that be?


And often that thought experiment can be a, a nice, like, forgetting about all the terminology inertia, et cetera. Can be a nice way for people to start thinking about what are some of those elements that hold people back. And in my experience, if you dig deep enough, you can probably find all elements of four, but the value of this process really comes from trying to find what are the, the one or two particularly acute impediments to change.


And so in the context of, let's say an internal change initiative you know, I guess the point I'm trying to make is often this does not require total redesign about how you approach change.


It's just trying to find what are the one or two hurdles that are going to trip you up.. And so in the context of let's imagine it's a digital transformation and this is a company that's done things in an analog old school way. And now all of a sudden they're trying to unveil this digital streamline process overnight.


What, what you have there is a really big change, at least in people's minds. They perceive that as transformative and it may not mean that you do everything different, but once you see that, it's highly likely that the unfamiliarity of this - what you're trying to achieve - is a big reason people are resistant to it.


Well, now you can start thinking about some real practical ways to disarm it. The specifics take endless form, but as a high level approach, it's just, if we can find one or two barriers, often, that's all that is required to really unlock change. Often it's things like people are embarrassed. People are anxious. You made it a little inconvenient. And if you shine a light on that, often the solutions become really clear and intuitive.


Aaron: I love how you shared that. And I like the high level here because you know, for somebody who's even, somebody who's read this and I, you know, I'm looking at the book right now and I have a bunch of post-it notes that underline things.


But we don't often put all of them into practice. Right. And I don't use the four frictions as a, a question I ask myself every day before I roll something out with my team. But I think you made it really simple and easy to say, hey, you're gonna do something different. You're gonna change the way people work or change a system that they use.


Even if everyone loved it, why might it fail? And I think that's such a simple way to just get us to pause, to slow down, to look at those things. And as you said, once those barriers are highlighted, you know, you can figure out how to solve around them. It takes a little bit of time, but, and I think you do a good job in the book of asking questions like that too.


One of 'em was like simple: Have people had time to acclimate to the idea? Like super simple, but it's something I talk about all the time. Like everybody needs time to absorb something new if they don't just take, take it and run. You know, most of us need a little bit of time. And so like, does somebody have time to acclimate to it. That's like a simple question. And I think sometimes questions make it easier for us to figure out how to put these, these learnings into practice.


You mentioned something in your book that I also thought was just very interesting. And, and I was curious about, you said a lot of employee behavior that looks like apathy is really just ambiguity.


And I see that all the time of executives and, and leaders complaining about their employees and saying, they just don't care. They say they want this, but then we give them this and they're just apathetic and I know cuz we work with these people that that's not the case, but can you tell me a little bit what you mean by a lot of employee behavior that looks like apathy is really just ambiguity?


Loran: Yeah, this brings us back to the fuel based mindset and it's a, it's a wonderful example of it. So in teaching executive education classes at Kellogg often the opening question I'm asking is, why are you here? What is the change? What is the biggest problem you have for people? What is the thing you are not getting today that you want?


And there's a, a few themes, but one of the most important themes, given the particular industry and companies I'm often working with is innovation, right? So they're saying our people aren't innovating enough. Like these are executives saying, this is the most important thing for them. And if you then ask them, like, how are you trying to create that change?


Like, how are you trying to spur innovation? Again, the most important problem in their view. They’ll say things like, sometimes it's incentives, maybe really it's basically like pleading. It's like hand wringing, right. They're explaining the importance. They're at some level on an emotional appeal. But a great question I love to ask in those moments is, when in the week, precisely, is innovation supposed to take place?


So is innovation at 9:00 to 10:00 AM on a Tuesday morning endeavor? Like, when you're saying it is the most important thing and you're carving out time for all of these other matters, like when does this happen here? And of course, as anyone would know, there is no time. This does not reveal a lack of commitment around innovation. Like this is truly, as far as they believe, their most important problem, but what it speaks to is, again, what they've been focusing on is pleading important significance, maybe even fear and, what it speaks to is we focus so much on the why - because our understanding of fuel is getting more sophisticated and maybe we just used evidence and data and now we have these insights of making sure people understand the why the importance, and that is all good. But I would argue, we shouldn't just focus on the why, we should spend equal time and attention focusing on the, how, like once we know what is it we want more of, or what is it we want less of, we need to give people a roadmap.


Like that is what I mean by ambiguity. And I bet you at my, my employer, my home institution, Northwestern University Kellogg, I bet the deans would love more class innovation, you know, staying on the cutting edge, bringing new ideas, class concepts and, and classes into the curriculum. But if you were to approach a random professor there and say, okay, you wanna build a brand new class, tell me what the first three steps are for making it happen.


They would have no idea. No clue, like who do you talk to? Is it a form? Do you, do you set up a meeting? No idea. That's what I mean by ambiguity, the ambiguity of action. And a lot of times. To the leader's mind to the innovator, the entrepreneur, they're selling an idea and people aren't responding and they interpret it as resistance apathy.


They think fuel is insufficient or people just don't care. That's all fuel based mindset thinking. Oftentimes it's just, they don't know how to take the first step. In fact, this is a sort of story that was told. I get to work with a lot of different government groups. And this was someone from the FBI talking about how when, when they're in a hostage situation and let's say someone's robbing a bank.


And the FBI police get there very early, early on in those moments, they would tell people to freeze. The command was freeze. And oftentimes to their surprise, like they've got the bank robber just, you know completely caught cornered guns pointed on 'em very often bank robbers would be non-compliant in those moments.


And what it took them a while to realize is the story was told to me is that in that moment they don't really know what freeze means. Like they know abstractly what it means, but does that mean, do I put my hands up or does putting my hands up, does that look like an aggressive gesture?


Does it mean no movement at all? Or does it mean walk towards you? What does that mean? And very often the police or, or FBI law enforcement would interpret their reaction as some form of non-compliance because they're just standing there. But the person in that moment, doesn't, that's an ambiguous command, and ambiguity is the enemy of action.


And so we focus so much on the, the why and the, and the importance, but often we aren't creating either. I would say the solution to that is one of two things. Either giving people what I'd call clear roadmaps, like here are the steps, making those steps as easy as possible, or creating what we'd call windows of opportunity.

Because like in another lens you could see this as the intention-action-gap problem.


Aaron: Yep.


Loran: And how do people try and overcome that? Where there it's appeals? It's, it's all that stuff. If you just find ways to create moments, windows of opportunity, where it's really easy for people to do it, that will change.


So that's that idea of, of the problem of ambiguity.


Aaron: And I love that. And it highlights again the way we think about others. You say, like I tell 'em what to do. They know what they're supposed to do, why don't they fricking do it? And what you're talking about is they're not looking at the barriers to what might be getting someone to action, right? In your, in your bank robber example, they might not even know what starting doing it looks like. And you know, we always talk about, at Raise The Bar, clarity is kindness and giving clarity…


Loran: Oh, I love that.


Aaron: Is one of the, the biggest things you can do as a leader, right?

If there's like three things you do. Great leaders are responsible for giving clarity, giving context, the why, and creating a psychologically safe space. And so clarity is just super simple and I I'm guessing, you know it, and I know it cuz we run workshops, you know, multiple workshops every day.


And we ask, you know, groups of committed leaders who are excited to do this work and ready to do this work, to go into a breakout room and do some activity. And we have specific slides and we walk through each step explicitly. Here's what you're gonna do first. Here's what you're gonna do second. Here's what you're gonna do third.


Not because we don't trust people to do things right, but if we don't give it the explicit nature of what we're asking them to do, they don't know what to do. And I've had that experience of going into a breakout room and people just twiddling their thumbs. Like, I don't know what we're supposed to do here.


And so it's that, it's that not realizing others' barriers to action. And that comes what, as you're talking about, of lack of clarity, lack of being explicit or a clear path to action. I, I just think that's, again, these are simple things that you're talking about. But things that are necessary.


Loran: I was talking to someone who does a lot of public speaking in the leadership space and what we were talking about, it was this interesting puzzle, which was, so his business is basically referral, right. So you give a talk and then that one talk leads to multiple talks and, you know, it's his livelihood.


So he tracks the referral outcomes very carefully and the puzzle he described to me is it's basically like an all or nothing situation. Like he's either getting a ton of referrals or none. And you know, he's got a very dialed in talk. So the variance isn't on what he's producing and we were puzzling over this over a couple beers. And eventually the, the question I asked was, okay, so if we really think about how referrals happen, like when they happen, how does that happen? Like, wha