Imagine you need to persuade an individual or a group of people to complete a task that will take time, multiple steps and actions in order to achieve it. Would you be more effective by taking a flexible approach and allowing them to choose the order in which they carry out the steps required? Or, would it be better to be rigid and prescribe the specific steps yourself?
People typically consider two things when deciding whether or not to undertake a goal — the attractiveness of a goal and how likely it will be to achieve the goal. For example, a business development team would likely consider the attractiveness of potential clients as well as assessing how realistic their chances are of securing their business when deciding what potential clients to target.
In a new series of studies, researchers thought that more people could be persuaded to undertake goals that require the completion of multiple actions if they were allowed to choose the order in which they completed those actions. However, they also believed that once a goal was undertaken, the flexibility that attracted them to signing up in the first place would serve to make it less likely that they would achieve the goal. The studies were conducted by Liyan Jin from Fudan University’s School of Management in Shanghai and Szu-chi Huang and Ying Zhang from the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas and will shortly be published in the Journal of Consumer Research.
The researchers tested their ideas with 800 customers in a busy yogurt store where these customers were offered a reward card entitling them to free yogurt after six standard purchases. Half the cards required the purchase of six different flavors of yogurt in any order. The other half required the purchase of six different flavors in a prescribed order, specifically banana—apple—strawberry—orange—mango—grape. Additionally, half the cards required customers to return the next day to activate the card with the other half being told the card had already been activated. These last two features of the study were important because they enabled the researchers to measure a customer’s motivation to start the task by requiring them to this second return trip for activation.
Consistent with their initial hypothesis, researchers found that customers who were given a reward card that allowed them to purchase the yoghurts in a flexible order were significantly more likely to activate their card than those told they had to purchase in a fixed sequence (30% v. 12%). Interestingly though, when it came to completion rates the opposite was true. Customers given reward cards that required a fixed sequence of purchases were significantly more likely to complete all the required purchases.
One potential reason could be that providing a rigid sequence eliminates the number of choices a person has to make. Customers assigned to the rigid reward card really only had one decision to make and that was whether to sign up or not. In contrast those assigned to the flexible reward card were required to make an additional decision at each required step. For example “Which yogurt should I choose today, strawberry or banana?” And one thing that many of us will appreciate in today’s information overloaded world is the need to make less decisions. In follow-up studies the researchers found that those people who followed the rigid sequence typically reported that limiting their choices made the goal more likely to be achieved and made them feel easier about the process too.
Rigidity 1 Flexibility 0.
But hold on a minute. Although customers given the rigid purchase sequence were much more likely to complete all the purchases required to get their free yogurt, less of them signed up in the first place. A rigid structure may well increase peoples’ likelihood to achieve a goal but it also reduces adoption rates in the first place. So the key question here is what’s the overall net effect?
The answer is that it depends on the context.
In situations where the choice being made is relatively simple and the motivation to achieve the task is quite strong, the flexible rather than rigid sequences typically lead to better goal achievement. But where the change required is more complex or where motivation levels are lower, it appears that a rigid sequence and structure is more helpful, leading to higher completion rates.
So let’s imagine that you are the manager of that business development team who has been tasked with landing a new client. Imagine further that winning such a client will be a complex undertaking requiring your team to carry out a range of tasks and overcome several barriers over an extended period of time. This research suggests that in addition to setting out a detailed plan of all the steps that the team will need to be taken to achieve their goal, their likelihood of achievement could be enhanced by being very specific about the order in which those steps are carried out. At first sight such a rigid approach might raise objections from the team. They may claim that removing flexibility will cause inefficiencies if tasks have to be completed in a prescribed order rather than in parallel or combination. In some cases this may well be true. The advice here is not for the manager to direct orders to his/her team but instead to direct a question to themselves: “Is this task sufficiently complex, or motivation levels low, that the costs of being rigid will be less in the long run?”
Such an approach might also have benefits when motivating yourself to learn a new skill—especially if that skill is a difficult one and you already have lots of other distractions in your life. While writing down all the required steps in the specific order in which they should be carried out might initially appear an unattractive and unduly cumbersome task, according to this research this small change might make a big difference when it comes to achieving the sort of ukulele skills that will improve your chances of getting a place in that folk band you dream of joining.
When has a rigid, rather than a more flexible approach, paid bigger dividends for you?
Where could you see a place for the ethical deployment of this research in your business?
Jin, L., Huang, S., Zhang, Y. (Forthcoming). The unexpected positive impact of fixed structures in goal completion. Journal of Consumer Research. DOI 10.1086/671762