How to change minds

ISE Magazine Volume : 50 Number: 6
By Theresa J. Barker

Facts alone aren’t enough for ISEs to engineer better decision-making

Why does scientific and engineering communication sometimes fail to sway decision-makers to take action on the issue at hand?

“We’ve given them all the facts,” you think. The need to reduce plastics in the environment. The benefits of cleaner energy. The effect of global warming on climate change. Closer to home, perhaps you have determined an improved process for manufacturing your company’s product, but management seems reluctant to embrace it. Or your team has analyzed customer complaints and has devised a solution to address those complaints, but company decision-makers remain unconvinced. What is wrong? Why don’t they see it your way?

With facts alone …

Facts alone are often not enough to change opinion. As engineering professionals, we are used to delving deeply into data, using experimentation and the scientific method to determine the answers to questions about why a product is failing or what customers want from our products or services. Once we identify these answers, we often believe that we only need to report our findings to the appropriate decision-makers, and voilà! The decision-maker will act on our findings immediately to improve the process or to resolve customers’ complaints.

Yes, in our “aha” moments, when we come to the results of our analysis and realize what will fix the problem, it is natural to believe that facts and evidence will speak for themselves. We think our results alone will persuade the other party to believe our stance and to take action. However, there is research from decision analysis and other sources that suggests people make up their minds first and then often come up with reasons for why they believe the way they do, so that the belief itself is more persistent than we think. The result is that facts alone, however well-presented, are often not sufficient to sway opinion.

The good news is, once you have studied a problem and made your analysis, the key to changing the mind of a decision- maker is in framing your communication. You don’t have to be the most persuasive salesperson in the world to convince a decision-maker of your point of view. But you do need to be aware of the way that the human mind works and to be intentional about communicating your knowledge in a way that enables the decision-maker to make the best decision possible.

Let’s take a look at three specific strategies for overcoming prior beliefs and swaying decision-makers’ minds. At the end, we will review a “before” and “after” illustration of these strategies.

Strategy 1: Tell us a story

Incorporate a scenario or story in your recommendation. Facts don’t change minds, emotions do.

Wait a minute, you say: I’m an engineer, and I don’t deal in emotions, I deal in scientific evidence. Yes, that’s true, and you’ll need the facts and evidence to support your recommendation. But it’s also important to engage the emotional mind of your decision-maker.

According to research presented by Chip and Dan Heath in their book Switch, human brains run on two systems, the rational mind and the emotional mind. It’s important to address both of these systems of the mind when you’re asking people to change their mind about an issue. Storytelling, or presenting a real-world scenario, is an ideal way to engage the emotional mind that facts do not.

Strategy 2: A better frame

Frame the communication in terms of the other party’s needs and concerns, not your own. As engineers we are accustomed to thinking of the product or process we have developed in terms of its important features and aspects.

For instance, we may stress the speed of a new electronic device or the improved performance of an updated manufacturing process. But features are only one way to look at the change we want the other party to embrace. What’s most important to the other party, whether management or your customers, is how this new product or process will solve their problems. What need does it address? How will it resolve their concerns?

Technical professionals are used to explaining and describing scientific information – how something works, what was fixed to solve the problem, what changes were made. But if you want to persuade the other party to accept your opinion or recommendation, think first about what’s most important to them. Is it reducing costs? Increasing reliability? Making customers come back more often?

Then, frame your communication to talk first about the decision-makers’ needs and concerns. What does this strategy do to solve a problem they’re struggling with? How does this change make things better for their job, for the company, for the customers and the industry they are part of? By putting the change in terms of the other party’s goals and needs, you are helping them solve the problems they are grappling with every day. You can always follow up with a technical rundown of the specific features and improvements of the change.

Strategy 3: Share and share alike

Call to mind a shared context. When we communicate about a change that we want to make, it is easy to fall into an adversarial role. We think: I have identified the problem, I have done the research and analysis to solve the problem, and now management (or customers) are not doing what clearly needs to be done. What’s wrong with them? Do I need to argue more fervently to get them to see my point? I’m an engineer, I’m not a politician!

Instead of seeing this as a “me” and “them” situation, try to come up with a context of shared values. What do you both want? Is it more reliability, better quality, lower costs? Is it an improved relationship with a third party, such as government or public auditors? Add a call to this shared context as a wrapup to your recommendation. This will help the other party to remember that you both want the best for the situation and that you’re on the same team, ultimately, working toward the best for your organization, your industry or your profession.

Putting strategies into action

Let’s take a look at a hypothetical “before” and “after” illustration using these strategies.

Suppose you are part of an industrial engineering team working for a large clothing manufacturer. In one of your projects your team has studied the best way to staff the retail stores owned by the company. After learning about some recent research into work schedules (“A Find at Gap: Steady Hours Can Help Workers, and Profits,” The New York Times, March 28, 2018), your team investigates the staffing situation at your company. The findings of the team’s investigations support a recommendation to change labor shifts from variable work schedules to consistent, predictable hours for each worker.

One way to present your recommendation is using only the facts in your findings:

Before (presentation of facts):
To: Decision-makers
Our investigation into the staffing of retail stores has concluded that predictable work schedules increase labor productivity and also result in higher median sales. A study into stable scheduling from a consortium of university schools (“The Stable Scheduling Study,” see sidebar on Page 43) provides detailed information on the results of a study involving staffing at The Gap clothing retailer. After reviewing the research, we recommend changing the staffing methods in our retail stores to incorporate these factors of stable scheduling:

  • Tech-enabled shift swapping
  • Stable shift structure
  • Core scheduling

We have provided additional details and a proposed implementation plan in our report (attached).

— Your industrial engineering team

This facts-based approach (“before”) may be sufficient if the decision-makers are already in support of the change. For instance, if corporate management was already familiar with the results of the study and had requested that your team investigate whether the results might apply to this organization, then a facts-based recommendation, which supports the interest and mindset of the decision-makers, may be all that is needed.

However, if the decision involves changing the minds of decision-makers, if decision-makers believe that the current situation is still the best approach and they are reluctant to change the situation, then providing a facts-only recommendation may not sway their opinion. Think of the “glove exhibit,” in which Stegner’s management was not even aware of the problem or opportunity to reduce costs by consolidating purchasing of worker gloves. In this case, you may need to engage the emotional brains of decision-makers to have your recommendation adopted.

Let’s try a different approach (“after”), in which we use storytelling, framing in terms of needs of the other party and call to a shared context:

After (storytelling, client needs, shared context):
To: Decision-makers
Recently our team became aware of new research into labor scheduling for retail stores. Retail staffing has long been a variable-schedule approach that also includes on-call demand shifts for retail staffers. The variable-schedule approach means that staffers do not know what hours they will be working from one week to the next, and they also do not know if they will be needed on a particular day on which they are listed for an on-call shift.

Many of our employees are parents, and the unpredictability of work hours can wreak havoc on a child care schedule. Even outside the considerations of child care, employees who want to take classes or schedule regular activities with family and friends struggle with not knowing in advance what hours they will be needed at work. [Story or real-world scenario]

Our findings indicate that, surprisingly, besides benefiting employees by reducing uncertainty in their schedules, more stable scheduling also results in significant benefits for the company. These employer benefits include gains in worker productivity and increased median sales. A study into stable scheduling from a consortium of university schools (“The Stable Scheduling Study”) provides detailed information on the results of a study involving staffing at The Gap clothing retailer. We are recommending incorporating the following factors:

  1. Tech-enabled shift swapping
  2. Stable shift structure
  3. Core scheduling

We have provided additional details and a proposed implementation plan in our report (attached). [Framing in terms of the needs and concerns of the decision-makers]

At our company we aim to provide a high level of customer service. We also want our retail employees to be engaged in achieving our customer service goals. Our IE team is confident that stable scheduling can increase our achievement in these areas.

In this example, the decision-makers may believe that variable scheduling is necessary for profitability, especially if it has been in place for a long time. However, by discussing a couple of specific scenarios of the negative impact on employees – problems it causes with child care arrangements, difficulty in planning events and activities for employees – you are helping the decision-maker to imagine what it’s like for the employee. Describing the benefits to the company addresses needs of the decision-maker. Finally, putting the situation in context with a call to a higher-level context lets the decision-makers know you are aware of the ultimate goals in the situation.

We know from the study of decision analysis that humans make decisions quickly, often based on heuristics such as anchoring, when a decision is based on the first piece of information received, or confirmation bias, when we pay more attention to those factors supporting what we already believe (See “Primed for Decision Analysis,” Industrial Engineer magazine, September 2012).

While heuristic decision-making is sufficient for most of our day-to-day decisions, such as what route to take to work or what to order for dinner when eating out, the inherent cognitive biases involved in heuristics can prevent us from fully considering a new alternative to a present situation. Even when we are aware of potential biases in our decision-making, such as anchoring, we can still be affected by those biases. Further, we often stubbornly stick with our current beliefs until something comes up that may cause us to rethink those beliefs.

By engaging the emotional mind of a decision-maker through storytelling, addressing the other party’s needs and concerns rather than focusing only on your own, and appealing to a shared context, you will be ensuring that better and more well-informed decisions are being made on critical issues and problems in our professional lives and in our world.