Shaping the Path

In my first job out of business school, I was the most junior person in IBM’s Corporate Citizenship team. Stan Litow, the hard-charging ex-Deputy Chancellor of the NYC Schools, ran the group and was my boss’s boss.

Occasionally, I got to work directly with Stan, and “work” often meant doing the background research and preparing a draft document or an email for him to send out.

My barometer of success was simple. I tracked:

  1. The speed with which things I produced went out the door.
  2. The difference between what I produced and what finally got sent by Stan.

Naturally, the two were correlated: the closer I got to the target, the faster the end product was sent out.

I came to discover that it wasn’t just getting the content right that mattered. It also helped tremendously if I made it as easy as possible to turn my draft into the final product. This meant things like:

  • Drafting the outgoing email to accompany a file
  • Writing that email to make it sound the way Stan sounded
  • Succinctly explaining to Stan the context behind what I’d done and the recipient
  • Being completely clear what actions needed to be taken

While at the time I was enabling my boss’s boss, these behaviors continue to inform my actions to this day.

To be influential and drive action, part of our work is to make these actions as easy as possible – called “shaping the path” by behavioral economist Jonathan Haidt (Chip and Dan Heath also talk about this a lot in Switch). Shaping the path is the act of removing all friction between a person and the action you want them to take: giving students a printed map if you want them to go to a dorm and get a vaccine, for example, increases the number of students who get the shot.

Once you start paying attention to shaping the path, it’s addictive, especially in written communication (email/Slack).

You’re shaping the path every time you:

  • (email) Write a good self-contained forwardable email when you’re networking
  • (email) In an email, summarize your headlines in one sentence rather than assume that everyone will read the attachment
  • (email/Slack) Transform a paragraph into a numbered or bulleted list that is easy to digest
  • (Slack) Include a clickable link to a file to a colleague rather than a filepath
  • Encourage your team to take a specific action, and then model that action in verbal or written form
  • Use Docusign
  • Turn your Word Doc contract into an online Terms of Service
  • (email/Slack) Put all the information everyone needs in one place, more than once (as in, even after everyone has the calendar invite: “here are the materials for our meeting next Thursday from 10:00 to 11:00 am Eastern time and here’s the Zoom link”)
  • (email) Change the email subject line of an email to make it clearer what it’s about.
  • Are hyper-specific about what would be most helpful, or how you can help, and ask for just that (size of the action, amount of time) and nothing more.

Making everything a little easier for the people you interact with is a sign of both empathy and respect. It shows that you know how busy they are, and that you recognize how much time and energy it takes to task switch.

As a bonus, it’s more likely that people will do the things you’d like them to do and that they will feel great about it, because it was so easy for them.