“Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do. Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do.”Mark Twain
Tom looked at the big fence in front of him. Next to him stood a bucket of whitewash, waiting for him to spread it out across the bare board planks. He sighed. Normally, he would be out on a small adventure by now. Instead, he had been sent to whitewash his aunt’s fence as a punishment for skipping school to go swimming. He took a deep breath and started the boring job of stroking the board planks. Right, left, soak the brush in whitewash, and repeat. To make matters worse, kids passing by would stop and make fun of him.
This is an extract from MarkTwain’s “Adventures of Tom Sawyer”. Moments later in the story, Tom had “influenced” all the other kids to paint the fence for him. He made the chore seem to be a privilege. He even encouraged the kids to bribe him with gifts so that they would be allowed to paint.
So, just how did he pull it off?
Tom unwittingly discovered the power of Mimetic Desire
“To say that desire is mimetic means that it’s imitative. Desire is part of a social process because we are social creatures.”Luke Burgis (our guest on Innovation Show Episode 274 on his new book, “Wanting”.
If you were to leave a bunch of toddlers alone in a room full of toys. They will gravitate towards one single toy. If one child chooses it and displays enough fascination, pretty soon a second and third child will also show interest too. That is mimetic desire, they are imitating the desire of the other children.
In organisational change efforts, we can use Mimetic Desire to our advantage. Most efforts try to bring everyone on the change journey and often focus on converting the laggards. By using mimetic desire, you focus on the early adopters, those who are willing to give it a try. In doing so you enable what I call, “The curtain twitcher effect” named after that neighbour who is always peaking out to see what the Joneses are up to
When organisational leaders recognise and reward rather than punish new behaviours such as a willingness to fail in an effort to succeed, they create the conditions for a cycle of positive mimetic desire. Like the toddlers who show interest in a certain toy, leaders must explicitly pay attention to those people who initiate change. Leaders must focus on the early adopters rather than the laggards.
Quite soon, those laggards will be twitching their silo curtains wondering:
Hmmm, what’s happening over there?
Why are those people getting leadership attention?
How can I get me some of that?
And, soon enough, they will show interest in your new toy and will even hijack the credit for it when possible.
That’s when you know that you have succeeded.
THANKS FOR READING
For more thoughts on the “curtain twitcher effect” enquire about The Permanent Reinvention workshops, based on my book: “Undisruptable, A Mindset of Permanent Reinvention for Individuals, Organisations and Life” with a stunning forward by Dee Hock.