Catalytic Mechanisms – Effortless Ways to Change Behavior for the Better

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For years I’ve been fascinated by something that Jim Collins labeled “catalytic mechanisms” in a 1999 Harvard Business Review article. The article, entitled “Turning Goals Into Results: The Power of Catalytic Mechanisms,” described how to powerfully influence people in organizations to change their behavior—easily, permanently, and nearly effortlessly. Recently a Volkswagen campaign called “” rekindled my interest in the topic with their website dedicated to finding fun ways to change people’s behavior for the better, so I reread the HBR article and started pondering how this approach might be useful in influencing behavior on project teams. While I’m in the early phases of experimenting with catalytic mechanisms in my own work and life, I’m excited to share this with you so we can exchange ideas and all get busy transforming the planet for the better. (That’s my theme for 2010, and I have to admit it’s a bit daunting, so I can use all the help I can get!)

In chemistry, a catalyst is something that causes or accelerates activity without being consumed by that activity. Unfortunately the last time I checked, which was about five seconds ago, there wasn’t even a Wikipedia entry for “catalytic mechanism” yet, so here’s my definition: A catalytic mechanism is a device, process, policy or structure that encourages, evokes, or even forces, a desired behavior. A simple example is an entrance gate at a parking garage. The gate won’t let you drive into the garage until you take the parking ticket. Although you could get a buddy to manually force the gate up, or boldly crash through the gate, it’s much easier to just take the ticket, and it’ll make your exit far simpler as well. This is an important point about catalytic mechanisms—they make the desired behavior far easier than the undesirable behavior, in this case driving into the parking garage without remembering to take your parking ticket.

Permanent Solutions to Recurring Problems

The reason I’m so drawn to catalytic mechanisms is because they are effective, self-maintaining, and permanent ways to immediately change behavior, and require little or no further effort once they are in place and operating. Let’s take our simple parking garage example a step further. Imagine a parking garage that installs timestamp machines at the entrance to spit out tickets than can be checked upon exit to verify the total time spent in the garage, but without the gates that force cars to stop until they take the ticket. Without the gates in place, some people would surely forget to take their ticket at the entrance. Maybe a pile of tickets would accumulate at the base of the machine—no big deal. But from time to time there would a line of cars backed up at the exit when an exiting driver finds themselves ticketless. The parking garage attendant is left to sort out the mess. Repeatedly. Yuk.

Simply installing a gate at the entrance that is raised only once the ticket is removed ensures the right behavior by the customer—each driver must take a ticket before entering the garage. As long as the gate is working properly, and ignoring the possibility of criminal activity, the problem of forgotten tickets is now permanently solved. Of course the driver could still manage to misplace or lose the ticket, perhaps by removing it from the car, or—in the case of extremely messy cars or disorganized drivers—the ticket could actually become lost inside of the car itself. (Maybe in the future parking garages will just slap a barcode on the outside of the car when you drive in, or just take a picture and use pattern recognition to match exiting cars with entering cars, who knows.)

The entrance gate is a permanent solution to a recurring problem. Having seen recurring problems on project teams decade upon decade, and growing weary of asking, urging, coaxing, begging, and pleading with people to change their ways, I dream of such remedies to errant behavior! After all, projects are chock full of recurring problems, a dozen of which were the substance of my first book, Scrappy Project Management: The 12 Predictable and Avoidable Pitfalls Every Project Faces. What if we could create catalytic mechanisms that automatically, permanently, and effortlessly eliminated some or all of these problems? Suddenly the lives of project managers everywhere would brighten and a chorus of “hallelujah” would ascend from their collective voices around the world. Certainly worth a shot!

Swimming in Examples

It can be a little tricky to create catalytic mechanisms that achieve the desired results without unintended negative consequences, so before we tackle designing some to encourage more effective behavior in projects, let’s review a couple of examples from Volkswagen, Jim Collins and elsewhere to get the hang of it. And, while we’re at it, let’s consider the potential negative consequences of each.

Problem Catalytic Mechanism Intended Result Potential Negatives
How can we get people to use the stairs instead of the escalator? (Volkswagen site) Make the stairs into a piano keyboard that plays music as people step on the stairs. More people take the stairs, less electricity is used, and less maintenance is required on the escalator. Maintenance of the stairs piano. People running up and down the stairs just for fun. (Not all bad!)
How can we get guys from the R&D department to spend time talking w/people in manufacturing? Have daily donuts and cookies delivered to the manufacturing coffee break area, but not the R&D area. R&D and Manufacturing people hang out together and informally chat everyday, and R&D guys learn about problems their designs are causing. Foster unhealthy eating habits. Maybe get fruit and yogurt delivered instead?!
How can we assure that everyone involved in serving our customers focuses on delighting them? (Jim Collins article) Put a clause on our invoices that invites customers to delete the cost of any product or service they are not delighted with before paying their balance. Increased focus on delighting customers and eliminating the root causes of customer dissatisfaction. Unscrupulous customers abusing the clause to underpay for frivolous reasons.
How can we reduce the amount of time kids spend watching TV at home? Hardwire the TV directly to a bicycle as the only power source. Kids limit their TV watching and get exercise as they peddle the bike to power the TV. Bunches of kids sharing the peddling and running the TV day and night.
How can we level the demand for electricity throughout the day? Reduce the cost of electricity after 6 PM and let customers know about the cost savings potential. Cost-conscious people do their laundry and run their dishwashers in the evening, and the power company defers the need to build a new power plant by reducing the peak demand. It’s voluntary, so compliance is unpredictable.

As you can see, these catalytic mechanisms invite or require people to behave in a certain way via some kind of structure, incentive or penalty. The most effective ones are difficult or impossible to work around, like the TV that is hardwired into the bicycle instead of just plugged into a bicycle-run generator. (Of course, that won’t stop your kids from going over to the neighbors to watch TV or watching it on their computer.)

Now that your brain has got the hang of it, let’s come up with some catalytic mechanisms that could help us in the project management world. Here are a few ideas I had while mulling this over. See if you can come up with at least one idea of your own in each area.

Problem Catalytic Mechanism Intended Result Potential Negatives
How can we assure that everyone is clear on the overall project priorities that we’re using to make tradeoffs among quality, features, cost, schedule and other critical success criteria? Pop up a small “game” on the computer screen when email is launched, with the priorities floating about in random order, and require people to put them in the correct order before gaining email access for the first time each week. Each person makes the dozens of decisions and trade offs in their control in alignment with the project priority decision list. Everyone is working to optimize the project according to the same criteria. People know the priorities, but they don’t consider them when making their decisions. People stop using email. (Hey, that’s not necessarily a negative!)
How can we keep everyone focused on the project goal while they’re swimming in the details of their daily tasks? Use the project goal and a compelling picture as the screensaver on all team members’ computers. Daily reminder of the project goal keeps people focused on the big picture. As a result they make better decisions about how to achieve the overall goal. People stop paying attention to the message. (Maybe change the image daily to keep it fresh.)
How can we get people to update the status of their action items regularly? Schedule a tedious “Action Item Only” status update meeting, separate from the team meeting each week, but cancel it on weeks when everyone has completed their updates. Announce the names of those who have not done their updates at the start of each action item review meeting that doesn’t get canceled. Peer pressure to reduce the need to attend these kinds of meetings quickly gets everyone doing their updates. Too few people playing along to pressure the others to update their action items. People might rather have the tedious meeting than do their updates.
How can we keep people who are working in geographically separated locations feeling connected to each other? Hold the team meetings in a virtual worlds multi-player online game environment like Second Life. Have everyone meet to hang out and play a game for the first 10 minutes of each team meeting. Give a prize for the highest score. People show up on time to the on-line meetings, get actively engaged, and have a chance to enjoy some fun together. Some people even show up early to get the game started, or hang out afterward. Some people might not be into the virtual worlds gaming scene. Some computers might not have the power to handle the graphics of virtual reality programs.
How can we get people to meetings on time? Bring a stack of $1 bills to the team meetings (enough so that, if everyone showed up, they’d each get a couple of dollars) and split it among whoever’s there at the meeting start time. People show up on time and get a little cash bonus that puts a smile on their face. It costs a $100 or so each month. The thrill wears off after a while, so change the incentive occasionally. Maybe do a raffle of a bigger item each week instead.
How can we keep the voice of the end customer real and present for our design team? Pressure sensors on the bathroom seats that activate video clips of interviews with real customers on screens mounted on the door to the stall. Daily contact with end user perspectives influences design choices in alignment with delighting the customer rather than individual agendas. Not all people will see the humor in this in practice, and some won’t even see the humor in this in this article. ; – )

Catalytic Mechanisms Without a Wiring Diagram

There are a lot of catalytic mechanisms that don’t require you to convert your stairs to a piano or wire your bike into your television. Here are some I have been using regularly for years:

  • I put reminders on my calendar of things I want to remember to do, like annual goal setting and monthly updates of my website.
  • I publicize my commitments to personal growth and ask a friend to check up on my progress by a certain date.
  • I hang paper reminders I get from doctors, dentists, and such on the month that they’re due on a paper calendar in my bathroom, so when I flip to that month I see the document.
  • When I worked in an office with other people, I always kept a bowl of chocolate on my desk to encourage people to stop by and talk with me about what was happening on the project.
  • Back in the days when I actually had an office with a door I kept it open at all time (except when having top secret chats), and made sure a small round table and two comfy chairs were clearly visible and inviting people to drop in to share anything on their minds.

The whole point of catalytic mechanisms is to make desired behavior automatic, or at least much easier than undesirable alternatives. After immersing myself in thinking about this topic for the past couple of days, I’m starting to see possibilities for them everywhere. Send me your ideas for catalytic mechanisms in your work and your life! Maybe we’ll even start the Wikipedia page.

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  1. I saw the humor in your suggestion about keeping the idea of delighting the customers up front but was concerned about the Pavlovian connection it might make.


  2. Ah, you make a good point there, Joy! I may have inadvertently designed a mechanism that works against my own intentions. Always a threat with this kind of thing. Thanks for writing!

  3. Oh – here’s an idea for you.

    How can we get people to update the status of their action items regularly?

    Simplify it! I’ve been at companies where status reporting took more time than we had for actually working on projects. One manager kept us revising our status reports for an entire 40 hour week. Another required reporting every ten minutes. Set up the benchmarks as a checklist where time and date are automated when a check is entered.

  4. Kim, you haven’t posted in a while here, but when you do, it sure is thought-provoking. I’ll let my brain mull this one over and see what I can come up with.

  5. Thanks for your comment, Mike! I see farther when standing on the shoulders of giants like the thought-leaders who developed these ideas. Glad you find them intriguing!

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