Guideline: provide concrete instructions to make easier to do the right thing


September 1, 2019



When you’re trying to get someone to make the right decision or take the right action, provide concrete instructions because that will make it easier for them to do the right thing.

Examples & Stories

At work I’m currently putting together a field guide for change management based on our experiences with a number of change programs. During my research, I read the following story in Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard by Chip and Dan Heath.

Researchers at Stanford University conducted an experiment to find the factors in getting students to donate food to charity. They first asked students to rate their perception of their classmates’ willingness to donate to charity. In effect, the researchers categorized the students as either “saints” or “jerks”. They then provided each student with one of two sets of instructions.

Basic instructions:

  • A well known location on campus to bring some tinned food

Detailed instructions:

  • A map with the location of place to bring the tinned food
  • A specific request - a tin of beans
  • A suggestion to the student to think of a time when they would be near the location
  • A follow up call to remind them where and when to donate

Of those who received the basic instructions, 8% of the saints and 0% of the jerks donated food. This was not entirely surprising. Of those who received the detailed instructions, 42% of the saints and 25% of the jerks donated food.

That’s right, jerks who received detailed instructions were more likely to donate than saints with basic instructions. If you’re hungry, you’re more likely to get food from a jerk with a map than a saint without one.


… you’re trying to get someone to do something or change their behavior in a specific way...


Provide detailed instructions. Anticipate decisions the person will need to make and give them concrete options. Make it easy for them to take action or make the right decision. The Heath brothers call this “Shaping the Path”.

This experiment is also mentioned in Bob Sutton’s Good Boss, Bad Boss: How to Be the Best... and Learn from the Worst. In a section titled “Be Repetitive and Concrete” he suggests providing checklists which were used during World War 2 by B-17 pilots. Early in its lifetime, the B-17 was considered difficult to fly but a set of checklists for takeoff, flight, landing and taxiing tamed the complexity. Checklists were also used in medicine by Atul Gawande to reduce to number of infections post surgery.


As the Heath brothers say, “what looks like a people problem is often a situation problem.” People only have capacity for a finite number of decisions in a day. The less thinking they need to do the more likely they are to take action.

The bigger picture

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