“Olifantenpaadjes” or how to change habits


One of the most difficult things in change management is change people’s habits. Habits are like reflexes: act without thinking why and how to do it. Habits save a lot of time and energy. How difficult would walking or driving a car be if we had to think about what to do, why you do that and how you should do it.

When I go to work, I always take the same route. Boring… some people say. But it allows me to think about other things without thinking about where to go. Sometimes I try an alternative route to avoid traffic jams. And if the traffic jam happens every day, the alternative becomes my fixed route, even when traffic is low and there are no traffic jams. Just out of habit.

This is how “olifantenpaadjes” (Dutch) are born. Literally they translate to “Elephant paths”, but in English they are called “Desire paths” or “Game trails”. Usually desire paths are the result of a shortcut; cutting a corner is shorter and faster. But sometimes it is longer, e.g. going around a fence over the grass. The same with habits. Habits are usually efficient ways of doing something, but often it is an easier way not necessarily more efficient or better.

In change management, changing a way of working is like changing the roads. Deployment of the change involves instructing and training people to followed different roads and routes. But as old habits die hard, people will continue to follow the old routes which then become “elephant paths”. The reason I don’t like the term “desire paths” is because people don’t desire to follow the path, they just do out of habit following the same way as the other elephants go. One elephant going the “right” way won’t change the habit of the herd.

So what can you do? You can punish people for not following the roads (or rules), by fining them, taking disciplinary measures or put it in their evaluations. Or you can instruct and train them until their habits have changed. But since old habits die hard, people will continue to fall back to their familiar “elephant paths”.

A better way would be to make use of the natural inclination of people to take the “elephant paths”. Instead of paving the roads where you want people to go, you should build obstacles around the areas you don’t want people to go and allow them to go anywhere else. People will go around the obstacles in the easiest possible way to get to their destination. New elephant paths will grow that way and old ones will be forgotten. Then you can pave those new elephant roads and remove the paving of obsolete paths. You don’t need signs, rules or guidance to stay on the road! People will just do it.

So how does this change change management? First of all, change management should not focus on defining and deploying processes. People do not follow processes, they follow “elephant paths”. So instead, change managers should make it easy to realize the dream of success. Secondly, they should pave the “elephant paths” to make it even more easier to follow them, and clean up the obsolete paths. And finally, change managers should place obstacles at strategic places in the processes. This may be when the elephant path does where you’d rather not have it – so people start going an alternative path – or at places where you absolutely don’t want people to go regardless of a path leading there or not (e.g. restricting access to confidential information).

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About Frank Schophuizen (fschop)

Hi, my name is Frank Schophuizen and I am working as a consultant in CM, Agile and ALM for TOPIC Embedded Systems. I have over 30 years experience in software development in the technology industry, with the last 15 years mainly in process improvement, deployment and integration of methods and tools in the area of CM, Agile development and ALM. I am strongly interested in the complexities of collaboration and integrations in multi-project and multi-site organizations. I have worked with various technology companies such as Philips, ASML, NXP and Vanderlande, and with various tool vendors such as IBM Rational (e.g. ClearCase, Synergy, Jazz products) as well as open source tools (e.g. SVN, Git, Jenkins, Trac, Eclipse). I am living in Eindhoven, the Netherlands, with my wife. We have 3 adult children. My main hobbies are classical music and photography.
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