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Why We Think In Fuel

In our book The Human Element, David and I put forward a new perspective on innovation. It’s a framework we call Friction Theory. In an earlier article we discussed the limitations of a fuel-based mindset. In this blog post we address a FAQ of Friction Theory: why do people think in Fuel?

Why We Think in Fuel

Why is Fuel the default mindset? To answer this question, we need to understand how the human mind interprets bad outcomes. Suppose you send your resume to a company and they never get back to you. Why didn’t they respond? Or imagine that a colleague of yours starts taking the parking space that’s always been (unofficially) yours. Why would she do that? There are many possible explanations for why bad things happen. Maybe the company wasn’t impressed with your resume, or maybe they already filled the position. Maybe your colleague took your parking space because she hates you, or maybe she had no idea it was “yours.” The reasons we use to explain bad events determine how we interpret the bad news. In life, like in law, intent matters.

Humans have a funny habit of understanding action as the result of internal forces and minimize the role of situational causes. We see action primarily as a function of motivation and intent. For example, less than half of American college students vote in general elections. Why are those numbers so low? Because they are apathetic (an internal attribution), we instinctively think. Psychologists call this mental habit the Fundamental Attribution Error. And it is a nearly unbreakable habit of the mind.

Fuel perfectly maps onto our attributional tendencies. Fuel is designed to stoke motivation and intent. Why aren’t people buying your product or proposal? “They must not find it exciting,” we imagine. If that’s the reason your mind constructs, then the way you change that behavior is to increase excitement. And that’s what Fuel does.

Connecting bad events with willful intent is buried deep in our DNA. Early civilizations, for example, believed that the weather was a direct manifestation of the mood of the gods. Happy gods brought weather favorable for crops and angry gods punished misdeeds with drought and floods. In fact, the word “climate” comes from the Greek “klima,” which means inclination.

Across these cultures, elaborate rituals were developed to appease the gods. The rainmaking dance is perhaps the mostly widely known example. In ancient China, the Wu Shamans performed elaborate ceremonies in times of drought. The shamans would dance for hours inside a ring of intense fire. The falling drops of sweat the dance produced were thought to encourage the gods to send rain.

In these rituals we see the same cause-and-effect thinking we observe today. Why aren’t the rains coming? Because the Gods aren’t happy. How do you persuade the Gods to bring rain? You appease them. What they didn’t consider is that maybe the Gods aren’t bringing rain simply because they are busy doing other things.

Spotting Friction requires empathy

There’s another reason we think in Fuel. Fuel is easy to see and Friction hides below the surface. Let’s say you spot a better way to do things, and you want to convince people to change. You will explain the facts – how the idea will benefit them. And if presenting the facts isn’t enough, you might turn to motivation. Perhaps you make an emotional appeal or create a financial incentive to get people to embrace change. These are general principles that can be applied to any circumstance. No context or background is necessary.

Friction is different. Spotting Friction requires empathy. It requires that you understand your audience and see the world from their perspective. When you are selling change, it’s natural to fixate on the idea. But to understand Friction, you need to shift the spotlight from the idea to the audience. Discovering Friction requires work and patience. It requires that we not only identify what people do, but take the time to understand why they do it. Detecting Friction demands that we become more anthropologist than marketer - a role for which few organizations have a department.

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