#3 Pencil Principle

#3 Pencil Principle
“Make something hard enough for people and they usually won't do it”

A great story is told in industry circles about the 1950's controller bent on saving money for his accounting firm. This was back before computers when accountants “kept books” with pencils. The penny pinching controller commanded all pencils purchased by the firm must be #3 pencils, forbidding the purchase of the softer #2 pencils. He carefully calculated that the harder lead in the #3 pencils would last almost three times as long.

The result? Instead of the #3 pencils lasting three times as long, they lasted twenty times as long. Pencil purchases almost dropped to zero. What had happened?  Sensible accountants refused to use the hard #3 pencils (virtually impossible to erase). They simply brought from home their own soft and easily erasable #2 pencils.

The point? Make something hard enough for people and they usually won't do it. Policies and practices which account for this human trait are smarter than those which ignore it. Want people to sign up for bringing VBS cookies? Then don't say, "If you'd be willing to bring cookies for VBS see Vivian Jones after the service this morning." That's a pure #3 pencil statement—making it hard for people to do something.  If I'm willing to bring cookies I have to (a) know which woman is Vivian ; (b) remember to see her after church; (c) find Vivian; (d) offer to bake cookies; (e)and arrange to deliver them wherever. Why make it so hard for me to make cookies for VBS? Don't you want me to make cookies?

However, the #3 Pencil Principle works both ways.  It also reminds us how to discourage people from doing something without issuing an outright ban. (Parents of teens—alert.)  Policies seldom have to forbid a thing outright—just make it difficult and most people won't do it. This, after all is what rebates are all about, right? You can ten dollars back, but will you?  Most don't.

The #3 pencil principle: Most people won’t do things if you make it hard for them, so make it hard for them to do what you really don’t want them to do… and visa versa -- make it easy for people to do what you want them to do.

So, what do you think?

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Keith Drury December 6, 2011

Original 1984 recording: http://www.drurywriting.com/keith/strategetics/leadership/36.mp3

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