Organizational Change – Part 4: Scaffolding and Hooks

Much of creating organizational change involves finding ways to successfully get individuals to remember and recall new information at the right time to change an existing habit. Often, these new ideas and concepts are complex, and until humanity invents Matrix-style knowledge uploading, we’re limited to what we can convey in low-bandwidth and faulty human communication. There are, however, a few tricks in how to structure and present information that I have found helpful to improve success rates here.

Two things I like to make sure I take into account to improve the odds of success in communication:

  1. Show people the trunk and first branches, not the leaves — i.e. give the most core information first and worry about details later
  2. Build hooks and triggers into the existing web — i.e. use existing organizational habits to make the changes stick

Show people the trunk and first branches, not the leaves

The human brain is capable of holding about 5±2 pieces of information in working memory. This can be thought of as similar to RAM in a computer. It’s fast and easy to access, but limited in capacity and new items will eject the oldest items when full. Accessing these old items will then require additional time and effort (and will eject another current item when loaded back in). If your plan for change has 10 steps and you present them each in order, you’re asking your audience to hold excessive new information in their minds, and they won’t be able to do it well — or at all, likely.

Despite working memory limitations, our brains are obviously capable of handling complex concepts with more than five parts, the way they do this is by ‘chunking.’ Chunking takes place when a set of related concepts are abstracted into a single concept in our brain. An example of this might be taking a series of numbers like 07201969 and turning it into a date, July 20,1969. Many people will find the date (consisting of three parts) easier to hold in memory than the exact same value presented as eight digits.

Chunking is a powerful tool to enable our comprehension of complex topics. However, it can also be misleading when preparing presentations, as our audiences will suffer higher working memory load than we will, given our familiarity with the topic. Holding all 10 parts of your presentation in your head won’t feel difficult to you due to chunking. Your brain has likely divided your plan’s 10 steps into something like three beginning, four middle, and three end steps; it will likely be much easier to hold in your head. Add that to your familiarity with the concepts presented, you can easily overwhelm your audience without recognizing it.

If you value your audience understanding your plan (and you probably should if you want to be successful), you have two options: 

1) Find ways to help chunk the information for them. Break it into sections where each level has no more than three to four  items. So you could have three phases, each with three steps to it. This makes it easier to digest, but chunking takes some time and energy, and doesn’t guarantee that everyone can follow along.

2) Simplify and slow roll. I often prefer this method, because it forces presenters to prioritize and be more honest about the limitations of their audience. Even if you have 20 important things you want them to know, expecting to deliver them to understand and remember those 20 things in a 15-minute presentation is wishful thinking and won’t work.

Instead, decide what your most important first three to five  points are. Use your time to repeat and detail those. It’s far better for them to walk away excited with three solid points from the first encounter than to forget all 20 points before they leave the room. Over the coming days, weeks, or months, you can then layer in the additional detail where appropriate. Providing them with a single reference to self-educate on the details will also allow the curious and motivated to pursue further learning on their own time.

Many video games are great examples of this second approach. They will often introduce mechanics one at a time as the game starts, allowing the player to practice integrating them one-by-one before layering in further complexity. The early levels of games are often used to create a scaffolding of concepts, not asking the player to master all of them immediately (that’s what the rest of the game is for), but introducing the basics and creating the scaffold for future learning.

Someone once said about President Lincoln: “When asked to appear upon some important occasion and deliver a five-minute speech, he said that he had no time to prepare five-minute speeches, but that he could go and speak an hour at any time.” [Similar quotes are often attributed to different people, if you’re curious check this post out]. If you want to simplify or better structure your communications, it will take time and effort. Many people, myself included, skip this step at times, to our own detriment. Find time to decide what your audience should walk away with, and how you can ensure they do.

Build hooks and triggers into the existing web

Every organization I’ve ever worked in has a complex web of explicit and implicit processes for making decisions and getting things done. If you’re attempting to make changes to how your organization functions, it will serve you to find ways to relate your changes to what is already there. This serves two functions: first, it makes the process easier to adopt by minimizing friction between existing ways of operating. Second, because of how human memory works, people will better recall items when they are associated with concepts they have already internalized. 

BJ Fogg, author of Tiny Habits, suggests that when trying to create a new habit, we link it in our mind to something we already do regularly. For example, if you want to start doing more pushups, start doing them after brushing your teeth in the morning and evening. Because brushing teeth is such an ingrained habit for many, it serves as a hook on which we can hang a new (and therefore more fragile) habit. We can borrow this concept to improve uptake of organizational change.

As an example, at one point when we were hiring engineers rapidly, managing the state of hires across departments and their relative priorities for recruiting became challenging. To improve this, one of our directors created a spreadsheet to track the list of prioritized openings. A tool is only as good as it’s used, so he also added a line to our weekly recurring engineering directors’ meeting to review the document and negotiate changes. Because reviewing this agenda was already an ingrained habit, we found it very easy to begin this new practice of reviewing and aligning on the hiring priorities weekly and keeping the document up-to-date for our recruiting team.

This is a simple example, and other changes may require multiple hooks or larger changes to the existing web of processes, but the principles are the same. Identify where your hooks will be, then create your intervention and reinforce the new change when you see it, to create a habit of the new changes. If no strong existing hook exists, you can manufacture one by creating things like calendar invites, recurring agendas, or simply using brute force by creating a reminder for yourself to reach out to others to remind them to take an action. 

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