I recently read “Tiny Habits” written by B.J.Fogg and in this blog I am going to share the connection I see between the content of the book and principles for designing solutions for scale programs (district or state level programs). Tiny Habits book focuses on principles and techniques for behaviour transformation based on the key principle that tiny is transformative. That is, once we keep doing tiny habits that are easy and do not require much energy from us, the habit starts growing and with it we start developing new identities. To take a personal example, being physically active was something very difficult for me. I would try a new form of exercise with so much initial motivation but fail sticking to it and develop an assumption that I am too lazy. So I started walking just for 3 minutes everyday after I close my laptop at the end of my workday. Though it may sound very small, I could finally stick to the routine of exercise and slowly in a month I was walking for 30 minutes a day. This also helped me to develop my identity as an active person.
Through my practice of tiny habits, I realised how intuitive it was and more importantly I also realised how connected it is to the work that we do at Mantra4Change in designing solutions for scale. I will share the key principles we apply while designing for scale at Mantra and also illustrate how it is connected to Tiny Habits.
1. Design your habit such that it will work even on your worst days/Design for solutions that will work at scale
While choosing habits, B.J. Fogg nudges us to ask the question “What habit would work even on your worst day?” rather than choosing habits that will require a lot of motivation from you and will work only on your good days. This is critical as motivation is like a wave for all of us and hence it is not reliable to design habits that will work only when there is motivation. Hence, it made sense for me to just start with 3 minutes of walking a day rather than starting with 30 minutes of walking as I would have definitely failed then.
One key question we ask ourselves while designing solutions for our state and district programs is “What is the practice change that is possible for most actors in the system, given their current motivation, bandwidth & capacity?”. Taking the example of parent engagement, though there are multiple elements that different actors have to do to ensure effective parent engagement, we started with something simple: school leaders conducting parent teacher meetings regularly for parents. This practice change was possible for most school leaders as it was already in their role, matched with their priorities and they also had the bandwidth for the same. Initially we focused just on regularity rather than the quality of the parent teacher meetings. Despite that, school leaders were able to see impact such and this nudged them to improve the quality of meetings too. If we had focused also on the quality of the parent teacher meetings initially, only a few motivated school leaders who had the time and capacity would have done and it wouldn’t have made an impact in the system. Thus by asking ourselves “What would most school leaders be able to do even in months where they are overloaded with administrative tasks and are facing the challenge of low teacher motivation?”, we were able to design a solution that will cause reliable impact at scale.
2. Choose habits which you already aspire for/Design solutions that match aspirations of stakeholders
One another key principle that B.J. Fogg mentions is that we should design habits that we already aspire to do. For example, I had an aspiration to already become active and healthy and hence choosing a habit that would help me work towards it helped.
Connecting this with the work that we do in designing solutions for scale, we consciously prioritise solutions that the stakeholders already aspire for. Parent engagement was a pain point for many school leaders and that was one key reason why the solution helped as it was something they aspired for. If instead we had chosen a solution related to inclusive education, it wouldn’t have made an impact as it wasn’t an aspiration yet for most school leaders.
3. Anchor your new habit to an existing routine/Design solutions by leveraging existing structures
While designing new habits, the Tiny Habits model suggests to anchor with an existing habit in your routine. This will help to ensure you stick to your habit and it doesn’t slip out of your memory. For example, while designing my habit of walking, I anchored it around closing my laptop at the end of my work day. Since I would always close my laptop at the end of my workday, it helped me to stick to the new habit I was designing for.
This principle connects with leveraging existing structures and roles in the system while designing for new improvements. The parent engagement solution leveraged the existing structure of Parent Teacher Meetings (PTM) which the school leaders were already familiar with.
4. Celebrate tiny habits/Design for communication & celebration spaces
Recognising that feeling good about ourselves if critical for habit design, B.J. Fogg suggests to celebrate or cheer ourself up whenever we execute the tiny habit. Our society may have conditioned us to feel good only when we achieve something big such as a promotion. Hence, it is critical to consciously self-cheer in a way that speaks to us to keep our energy and belief going. For example, I used to hi-fi my mom after every 3 minute walk and feel good about myself for the accomplishment.
Similarly in the system too, stakeholders may not intuitively celebrate small wins as they may just see them as part of their role or compare them to others and see them as something very ordinary. For this purpose, while designing for scale, it is critical to design spaces and campaigns that allows for stakeholders to celebrate themselves and each other. We did this during through state level campaign named “Proud Parent” for the parent engagement solution that allowed for the school leaders to celebrate their small wins.
5. Tinker with tiny habits/Capture stakeholder experiences and course correct
The last and my favourite principle that is illustrated in Tiny Habits is to approach designing habits with a tinkering and growth mindset. This means when a habit fails, rather than considering it as a personal failure, taking the effort to understand why it failed and tinkering with the habit to make it work for you. For example, when I first designed the walking habit, I said I will walk for 3 minutes everyday after I wake up. Though it sounds super simple, I was not able to stick to it since my sleep routine was not good and usually I woke up late and dived quick into work. Then I switched to shift my anchor routine to “closing my laptop” and it proved successful.
This also applies to our work with designing for scale. One of the key principles is to listen to the system and make design changes to the system rather than just attributing the system for the failure of a solution. For example, when we first started with designing capacity building programs at scale, we designed continuous one-week programs and we could see engagement drop over the week. Through interactions with stakeholders, we realised it was because the capacity building program clashed with their other responsibilities and also because they felt drained by attending continuous virtual calls. This insight helped us redesign the structure of our capacity building programs that will allow space for stakeholders to engage continuously and effectively.
We hope you enjoyed reading about the connections we discovered between designing for personal habits and transformation and designing for scale. While writing this article, I was reflecting on Gandhi’s statement on “Be the change you want to see in the world” and it just makes sense on how connected are the roads to personal and social transformation. I would like to hear more from you. Did any of the principles resonate with you either at a personal or at a professional level?