The "Simple" Tools of Behavior Modification

Bob Waterman and I had only one chart in all of In Search of Excellence. It’s on page 221, and it reports the work of MIT’s Tom Allen on space and communication. The compelling chart we appropriated shows that if you and I are separated by 5 yards or less, the odds of us communicating at least once a week are nearly 100%. At 10 yards of separation, the odds plummet to about 9%; and said odds are almost constant at 3% if we’re 30 to 100 yards apart. Among other things, such research led me to argue that the management of physical space is one of the most powerful tools that a boss has. There’s a ton of evidence, including my own research, that demonstrates, for instance, that intermingling project teammates from various functions is an astonishingly potent device for increasing project effectiveness. (Incidentally, I believe this is just about as true in the “virtual-electronic communication age” as it ever was.)

Which—of course—leads me back to diets. Cornell researcher Brian Wansink’s book, Mindless Eating, has just appeared. He claims we make about 200 dietary decisions a day. The self-manipulation of the most trivial ones can lead to perhaps a 200 calorie a week reduction—which adds up to a delightful 10 to 20 pounds a year.

These “trivial” tactics include using smaller plates and keeping the serving dishes (seconds!) in the kitchen rather than on the table. Reminiscent of Tom Allen’s work, briefly reported above, Wansick tested the results of office workers with jars of Hershey’s Kisses on their desks, versus candy located 6.5 feet away and not visible from anyone’s desk. The six-and-a-half degrees of separation and invisibility led to a 63% reduction in kiss consumption!

There is a lot of evidence accumulating on the topic of obesity that touts such wee changes as the most powerful interventions. At Sprint’s new HQ, for example, planners put the parking lot a quarter-mile from the office. (There is a van, but it is annoyingly infrequent.) The elevators in the low-rise building are irritatingly slow. The food court is as far away from the centers of frequent gathering as possible.

There is no limit to the application of this “simple” behavior-modification stuff. From project-team effectiveness to weight loss, such measures pack what could be called a matchless punch.