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To Get People to Change, Make Change Easy

How the "Banana Principle" can help facilitate cross-team collaboration (and more).

Harvard Business Review

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It is 9:00AM in our New York City office, and one of us (Jordan) stops by the fifth-floor kitchen to pick up a free piece of fruit — a healthy perk that Weight Watchers offers its employees. When he arrives, he faces a familiar sight: the bananas are already gone and only the oranges remain. When other hopefuls approach and find the bananas missing, they do not take a free orange. They just walk away. What is wrong with these people? Is there a subculture of orange haters lurking at Weight Watchers?

It turns out the answer is no. The other one of us (Tania) has observed this phenomenon in hundreds of companies across the country. We’ve come to think of it as the Banana Principle: bananas always go first, oranges last. It is not about the fruit itself. A psychologist might say it’s about human nature; a designer might say it’s about usability.

It’s not that bananas are objectively more delicious than oranges. The difference in their popularity comes down to one thing: how easy they are to peel. (Yes, you might say bananas are more a-peeling.)

To see how the Banana Principle applies in other contexts, imagine that you are leading a change initiative at your company to increase cross-team collaboration by 30% by the end of the year. How would you do it? Just telling people to collaborate wouldn’t be enough. Instead, you’d have to get creative.

Another way to think about this is friction. Friction is the force that slows things down. Most trains combat friction by applying grease to the tracks. The world’s fastest trains, like China’s 217.5 mph bullet, use magnets to make the trains float above the tracks. Consider how this analogy applies to the way employees operate. What positive actions are thwarted by small obstacles? What bad habits are easy to continue? How might you introduce friction so that detrimental behaviors are harder to start? And how might you reduce friction so that positive actions feel more like a glide than an uphill trek?

Over a century ago, the philosopher Guillaume Ferrero proposed that humans operate on the Principle of Least Effort: given several paths, we pick the easiest. More recently, Harvard psychologist Shawn Anchor suggested that the behavior we choose is the one that’s just 20 seconds easier to start. (We can’t help but observe that this is almost the exact amount of time it takes to peel an orange vs. a banana.)

Here’s an elegant example of the Banana Principle from 1stdibs, an online art and design marketplace. The culture at 1stdibs is warm and welcoming, but as at many high growth companies, new hires weren’t getting enough attention from more tenured employees. The friction? It is tricky to spot the newbies and tough to remember they need a little extra care. So, the People Team at 1stdibs decided to give all new hires a balloon that says “1st Day at 1stdibs.” The balloon hovers above the newbie’s desk, silently inviting everyone to introduce themselves and offer support.

A consulting firm we’ve worked with uses the Banana Principle to facilitate cross-team collaboration. The friction standing in the way of seamless interaction? Doors and legs. Yes, it just takes a bit of effort to walk over to someone’s office and open the door, but even that seemed to be too much to ask at this firm. So to combat this friction, the company set aside neutral turf for cross-functional teams. Most workplaces have enclosed conference rooms for this purpose, but conference rooms take time and effort to book, and they don’t flex well to accommodate the needs of different groups. So this consulting firm designated several door-less spaces for employees to use however they needed. Then they went a step further by ordering chairs and tables with wheels at the bottoms of their legs, making it easy to roll together rather than dragging furniture into place.

Even if you aren’t designing an office, it’s worth considering how you can re-configure your workspace to foster target behaviors. Want certain people to talk to each other more? Seat them close together or give them a shared place to go. Want people to do more brainstorming? Put up whiteboards or have stacks of Post-It Notes in every room. Want to encourage more feedback? Create spots for private conversation or hand out gift cards for local cafés. Want people to recycle more? Place large bins in various spots around the office.

But what if your goal is to stop or reduce a behavior? If so, you’ll need to draw inspiration from oranges rather than bananas. In other words, introduce more friction. For example, let’s say you had a problem with teenagers loitering near your business. You could yell at them or put up menacing signs, but none of those tactics is likely to work on rebellious teens. To put the Banana Principle to work, you’d want to make it slightly less pleasant to spend time there. Two underpasses in London with a chronic and dangerous teen loitering problem did just that, installing pink lighting that immediately scattered the teens. Why did it work so well? Pink lighting makes acne more prominent.

The Banana Principle also works on a much smaller scale. For example, website-building company Squarespace wanted to reduce multitasking during its employee training sessions. They knew that a “no phones” policy wouldn’t go over well with its tech-loving staff. So instead, the People Team introduced friction between people and their phones. They left a box of tiny toys in every conference room, ranging from spinners to Slinkys, to distract people from their phones. People now fidget with the toys throughout the training rather than checking their phones. Counterintuitive as it may seem, introducing these toys has made the training sessions more productive.

An elegant “orange” we see across many companies is the use of headphones in open plan work spaces to deter shoulder taps and “quick questions.” Seeing coworkers with headphones on makes it slightly uncomfortable to start an impromptu conversation. Still, one team we worked with found that earbud headphones weren’t enough to keep distractions at bay. Coworkers simply waved in front of each other’s faces. To increase the orange factor, the team’s manager gave everyone large, red headphones — then the number of interruptions plummeted. To combat interruptions to a greater degree, the glasses retailer Warby Parker created a library space for its employees where quiet is encouraged, including a secret room hidden behind a bookshelf for total privacy.

Notice that the examples we’ve shared require no persuasive speeches, requests, or explanations. The power of the Banana Principle lies in its simplicity and its silence. So, next time you are tempted to convince someone (or even yourself) to change a behavior, consider how you might change the friction level instead. Find ways to make the positive behaviors feel more like bananas and the negative behaviors feel more like oranges. And for the love of fruit, stop buying your employees oranges if they remain uneaten.

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This post originally appeared on Harvard Business Review and was published December 20, 2017. This article is republished here with permission.

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