• 06.02.11

Taking The Path Of Most Resistance

Taking the easy way out–expecting instant results; not taking the time to engage with others; doing it on the cheap; expecting everything to go smoothly–simply weren’t realistic or wise for would-be change agents. Examples of successful large scale change take pretty much the opposite approach.

I am blogging only intermittently as I am pretty focused on reading, talking to people, and generally fretting, worrying, and trying to structure the book on scaling constructive action that Huggy Rao and I are trying to write. I have been reading everything from psychological experiments on how different metaphors affect our perceptions and action, to studies of the mathematical and administrative challenges of scaling computer systems, to research on cities of different sizes (especially some interesting stuff that suggests bigger is better). But the area where scaling has been studied perhaps most directly is in education, including studies of how to replicate great charter schools and how to substitute effective practices for ineffective practices in large school systems.


This weekend, I read an old (1993) but excellent study commissioned by the Casey foundation on what it takes comprehensive school reform in large school systems. I was taken with its counter-intuitive title “The Path of Most Resistance” (see the PDF here), in part, because it ran counter to some of the (evidence-based) assumptions that we have developed about scaling, including the notion that scaling depends on finding ways to simplify things and reduce cognitive load on people, and the notion that changes that are consistent with local cultures and traditions are easier to implement than those that run counter to embedded beliefs.

As I read the report, however, I realized that the authors agreed with some of these points, as they weren’t arguing that leaders should TRY to make things harder on themselves, but rather, to do large scale change right, there argument was that a lot of very hard things need to get done. They argued that taking the easy way out–expecting instant results; not taking the time to engage with parents, students, administrators, local politicians and other key crucial actors; doing it on the cheap; expecting everything to go smoothly–and a host other “easy solutions–simply weren’t realistic or wise for would-be change agents. The examples of successful large scale change they examined all took pretty much the opposite approach–there was a lot of patience and a long term perspective, time was taken to involve major constituencies, lots of resources were devoted to the effort, and a host of other tactics that entailed doing things the hard way rather than the easy way.

More broadly, I think it is intriguing to use their title to flip assumptions about change. Sometimes the tougher road is the better road, as people go in with a more realistic mindset, they are ready for setbacks, and expect to spend the time and money necessary. And, as an added bonus, any social psychologist will tell you that the more effort and sacrifice people make toward something, the more committed they will be to it. Indeed, as I watch successful innovators–ranging from the teams we teach at Stanford’s design school to Pixar’s amazing journey–the most successful tend to have this “it is going to be tough, but I can and will do it” mindset.

On the other hand, I think there is an important caveat, one the Jeff Pfeffer and I have written about in Hard Facts. One of the impediments to successful change is that people use the belief that “it is difficult and takes a long time” to avoid trying to make necessary changes at all. Or, worse yet, they propose a long-term change process, but only start working on it just before the “due date”–perhaps proposing a two-year project, but doing all the work in the final months (much like my students who, even though I assign a paper months in advance, don’t start it until the night before). In addition, there are many constructive changes that are not difficult and do not take a long time–such as changing small rules or procedures, experimenting with a new and delimited program, and so on. Unfortunately, all too often, large scale change is slowed or stopped because people delay or fail to complete the array of small and easy steps required to accomplish any large change (In other words, they fail to focus on the daily small wins).

Finally, there is an old but interesting lesson in creative thinking here, one consistent with the notion of “having strong opinions, weakly held.” The challenges of doing successful change look a lot different when you assume that “taking the path of least resistance” is best versus assuming that “taking the path of most resistance” is best. Indeed, although they are pretty much exact opposites, you can learn a lot about change when you look for conditions under which each statement is true and false. More generally, a good way to spark creativity is to take your most dearly held assumptions and ask “suppose the opposite were true?”

Reprinted from Work Matters

Robert I. Sutton, PhD is Professor of Management Science and Engineering at Stanford. His latest book is Good Boss, Bad Boss: How to Be the Best…and Survive the Worst. His previous book is The New York Times bestseller The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t. Follow him at

About the author

Robert Sutton is Professor of Management Science and Engineering at Stanford and a Professor of Organizational Behavior, by courtesy, at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. Sutton studies innovation, leaders and bosses, evidence-based management, the links between knowledge and organizational action, and workplace civility.