In a famous experiment, researchers ran a lottery with a twist. Half the participants were randomly assigned a lottery number. The remaining half were given a blank piece of paper and a pen and asked to write down any number they would like as their lottery number. Just before drawing the winning number, the researchers offered to buy back the tickets. The question researchers wanted to answer is, "How much more do you have to pay someone who 'wrote their own number' versus someone who was handed a number randomly?" The rational answer would be that there is no difference (given that a lottery is pure chance and therefore every ticket number, chosen or assigned, should have the same value). A more savvy answer would be that you would have to pay less for the tickets where the participant chose the number, given the possibility of duplicate numbers in the population who wrote their own number. The real answer? No matter what location or demographic the experiment has taken place in, researchers have always found that they have to pay at least five times more to those who wrote their own number.
This result reveals an inconvenient truth about human nature: When we choose for ourselves, we are far more committed to the outcome — by a factor of five to one.
Conventional approaches to change management underestimate this impact. The rational thinker sees it as a waste of time to let others self-discover what he or she already knows — why not just tell them and be done with it? Unfortunately this approach steals from others the energy needed to drive change that comes through a sense of ownership of "the answer."
Consider another practical example: One retail bank's personal financial services (PFS) CEO employed a fairly literal interpretation of the above finding when he wrote his change story in full prose, in a way that he found meaningful. He then shared it with his team, getting feedback on what resonated and what needed further clarification. Then, he asked each of his team members to "write their own lottery ticket:" What was the change story for them, in their business, that supported the bigger PFS-wide change story? His team members wrote their own change stories, again in full prose, and shared it with their teams. Their teams gave feedback and then wrote their own story for their area/department, and so the process continued all the way to the frontline. It took twice as long as the traditional roadshow approach, but for a five-fold return on commitment to the program, it was the right investment to make.
Sam Palmisano, former CEO of IBM, in spearheading a change effort to move IBM toward a values-based management system, enabled thousands of employees to "write their own lottery ticket" regarding IBM's values. During a three-day, online discussion forum (dubbed ValuesJam), more than 50,000 employees were empowered — literally — to rewrite IBM's century-old values.
Other applications need not be so literal. At a global consumer goods company, the CEO brought together his top 300 for three two-day "real work" sessions over the course of three months, where they created the story together. Again, this required a significant investment of time, but having the top 300 five-times more committed to the way forward was considered well worth the investment. The story was then rolled out across the organization via one- or two-day sessions in which small working groups explored the implications for their particular parts of the business.
At a minimum, we advocate that leaders leverage the "lottery ticket" insight by augmenting their telling of the story with asking about the story. Consider David Farr, CEO of Emerson Electric, who is noted for asking virtually everyone he encounters in his organization four questions related to his company's story: 1.) How do you make a difference? (testing for alignment on the company's direction); 2.) What improvement idea are you working on? (emphasizing continuous improvement); 3.) When did you last get coaching from your boss? (emphasizing the importance of employee development); and 4.) Who is the enemy? (emphasizing the importance of "One Emerson"/no silos, i.e., he wanted to emphasize that the "right" answer was the competition and not some other department).
On a final note, many executives are surprised not only by the ownership and drive for implementation that comes from high-involvement approaches, but also by the improved quality of the answers that emerge. In speaking to HBR in November 2008, John Chambers, chairman and CEO of networking specialist Cisco Systems, described his experience in this regard, "It was hard for me at first to learn to be collaborative. The minute I'd get into a meeting, I'd listen for about 10 minutes while the team discussed a problem. I knew what the answer was, and eventually I'd say, 'All right, here's what we're going to do.' But when I learned to let go and give the team the time to come to the right conclusion, I found they made just as good decisions, or even better — and just as important, they were even more invested in the decision and thus executed with greater speed and commitment."
What it comes down to, of course, is that when people make their own decisions, they are more dedicated to everything that follows. If your team wants what you want them to want, you are five times more likely to get it.
This blog first appeared on Harvard Business Review on 04/26/2012.