Goldratt on Persuasion

I first encountered Eliyahu Goldratt’s ideas by reading his book The Goal, which is a “business novel.” I enjoyed reading it so much that I quickly read several of his other books. Although his books seem to be related to the realm of business, if you learn more about Goldratt and his ideas, it becomes clear that he believed they extended far beyond the domain of business.

In his books, Goldratt and his fictional counterparts intentionally assume the role of a Socratic guide, prodding other characters and the reader to question and investigate, rather than answering specific questions. This encourages active reading and application to real contexts.

However, it does increase the effort required to learn the specifics of his ideas, and how to apply them. At the very least, you need to read several of his books, not just The Goal. His later books and commentaries by other authors explain and extend the ideas that were first articulated in his narrative works. A good starting place is Tiago Forte’s series on the Theory of Constraints. If you want to go much deeper, William Dettmer’s The Logical Thinking Process: A Systems Approach to Complex Problem Solving is a thorough resource for applying the ideas.

I want to discuss one particular idea in Goldratt’s novels that has been particularly impactful for me. The idea comes from his novel Isn’t It Obvious?. This novel applies the Theory of Constraints to retail, rather than manufacturing. Through a series of unexpected, seemingly unfortunate but ultimately useful events, the protagonists discover the Theory of Constraints and how it can dramatically increase the sales in one retail store. However, they hit a new bottleneck, and need to convince their entire company to adopt their best practices. How can they persuade others in the company to accept counter intuitive ideas that require immense change?

To relate this back to your own life, think of a time when you wanted to convince someone to make a change. Maybe you wanted to convince a relative to change their diet, or a friend to start exercising. Did you persuade them?

If not, you, like the protagonists in the book, may have walked away believing that people are intrinsically resistant to change. This idea is extremely common. It manifests itself in any power dynamic, such as employee/manager, individual/organization, and citizen/government. Before I read this book, I found assumed that this idea was an accepted fact of life: that I and others were simply intrinsically resistant to change. But it is a view, and views can be altered, especially when made explicit.

In the book, the protagonists realize that people aren’t intrinsically resistant to change. Nor are they stupid. Instead, when presented with a change, we actually perform a very complicated value judgement. We consider four factors, and weigh the net benefit or cost. Then our thoughts and actions reflect that judgment.

What are the four factors we consider when making a change? The first is the benefit of making the proposed change. This is the part that you, as the initiator of the change, the person trying to persuade someone else, are most excited about. You know that exercising more will benefit your relative. They’ll have more energy, lose weight, live a longer life, etc.

However, there are three other elements: the disadvantage of making the change, the advantages of staying the same, and also the disadvantage of staying the same. As the proposer of the change, you are biased against noticing or considering these elements. However, these are the three factors that the person who will need to make the change is most attuned to.

For example, your relative probably believes you that exercising is good for them. However, they’re also aware that to make that change, they’ll need to feel physical discomfort from exercising, and change their schedule to wake up earlier. They like their routine, and how they don’t ever feel physically exhausted, because they don’t currently work out. Of course, they’re also aware of the weight they’re gaining, and the fact that they feel less attractive. These are the disadvantages of making the change, the advantages of staying the same, and the disadvantages of the status quo, respectively.

Let’s consider this situation numerically. In their mind, there is a definite benefit to making the change. Let’s weight that at 5. However, it also has disadvantages: inconvenience and discomfort, for a total of -2. Their current situation is pretty good- a 4. Admittedly, there is a cost to staying the same, but in their mind, it’s not that a big deal. Let’s put that at a -1. Changing is a 3 (5 + -2), and staying the same is a 3 (4 + -1). If they’re roughly the same overall, why make a change?

This example is a little contrived, of course, and you may find fault with its particulars. But I’ve found the general framework very useful. The book includes a mnemonic device: a climber ascending a mountain (pain of changing) for a pot of gold (reward of changing). At the base of the mountain — the status quo — there are alligators (bad) and a mermaid (good). Unfortunately, this mnemonic strikes me as potentially sexist. On the other hand, our memories are optimized for funny and/or dirty things. Use it if it works for you.

This framework is useful not only for understanding why people make decisions (or appear to resist change), but for persuading others. You are biased towards the benefit of changing, and tend to harp on those advantages. But here is a different approach. Be very brief about the advantages of changing, or omit them entirely. Instead, find ways to change the weights of the other three factors. You can do so objectively, if you have power over the situation, or subjectively, by changing how you talk about the change. You could find ways to decrease the risk of changing, decrease the benefits of staying the same, or increase the risk of staying the same. You could also employ a combination of these three approaches.

Upon discovering this framework, one of the protagonists articulates their revelation:

“I should have paid more attention to the fact that judging a suggested change has not one, not two, but four, very different aspects. Just think how much time, sweat, blood and tears I wasted trying to bulldoze people in the past, and so much of it was simply dust in the wind. If only I had prepared myself properly, I would have done such a better job. I should’ve been examining which of the four elements to focus on, and not simply plugging in the one I thought most important.”

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