Scaling Good Behavior
My Stanford Business School colleague Hayagreeva Rao and I are absorbed by why behavior spreads—within and between organizations, across networks of people, and in the marketplace. We've been reviewing academic research and theory on everything from the psychology of influence to social movements to how and why insects and fish swarm.
We are also doing case studies. We're documenting Mozilla's methods for spreading Firefox (its open-source web browser); the Institute for Healthcare Improvement's "100,000 Lives" campaign (an apparently successful effort to eliminate 100,000 preventable deaths in U.S. hospitals); the spread of microbrewing in the United States; an organizational change and efficiency movement within Wyeth Pharmaceuticals (now part of Pfizer); and the scaling of employee engagement at JetBlue Airways. And we're examining case studies by others, including the failure of the Segway to scale and the challenges faced by Starbucks as a result of scaling too fast and too far.
Our goal is to write a book in 2011 that provides useful principles for managers, entrepreneurs, and anyone else who wants to scale constructive behavior. Because we are in the messy middle, I can't tell how the story will end. But we believe we're making progress, and we're excited about a few lines of thought.
The first is the link between beliefs and behavior. A truism of organizational change is that if you change people's minds, their behavior will follow. Psychological research on attitude change shows this is a half-truth (albeit a useful one); there is a lot of evidence that if you get people to change their actions, their hearts and minds will follow.
The second theme is "hot emotions and cool solutions." As Rao shows in his research on social movements, a hallmark of ideas that scale is that leaders first create "hot" emotions to fire up attention, motivation, and often righteous anger. Then they provide "cool," rational solutions for people to implement. In the 100,000 Lives campaign, for example, hot emotions were stirred up by a heart-wrenching speech at the kickoff conference. The patient-safety activist Sorrel King described how her 18-month-old daughter, Josie, had died at Johns Hopkins Hospital as the result of a series of preventable medical errors. Her speech set the stage for IHI staffers to press hospitals to implement six sets of simple, evidence-based practices that would prevent deaths.
The third is what we call the ergonomics of scaling—the notion that when behaviors scale, it is partly because they've been made easy, with the bother of engaging in them removed. In developing Firefox in the early days, Mozilla's 15 or so employees were able to compete against monstrous Microsoft (and produce a browser with fewer bugs than Internet Explorer) by dividing up the chores and using a technology that made it easy for more than 10,000 emotionally committed volunteers to do "bug catching" in the code. Mozilla now has more than 500 employees, but it is still minuscule compared with Microsoft, and those bug catchers are still hard at work every night.
Robert I. Sutton is a professor of management science and engineering at Stanford and the author of Good Boss, Bad Boss (Business Plus, 2010).