Creating aspiration for change, and my time as a clown

by Jamie Flinchbaugh on 12-03-14

I was a clown. Some might think I still am. Let me return to that in a moment.

When trying to create change in the organization, we often struggle with ways to motivate people to change behavior. We certainly often aspire to ignite the intrinsic motivation of individuals, and for the “big” stuff, that is really where we want to maintain our attention.

But many of the behaviors that wrap around our core purpose require something else to drive activity. The reason doesn’t have to be intrinsic. It can be fun, or competition, or requirement. There are reasons to design in any level of aspiration into seemingly mundane tasks just to make them interesting and engaging.

I was recently visiting an organization who had a new safety standard, and the site turned catching the management team violating the standard into a bit of game. They all had fun with it. Another organization gave out stickers as recognition, and people would collect those stickers sometimes on their laptop much like those on a college football helmet.

What does this have to do with clowns? When I was living in Michigan, I was a part of a group called the Distinguished Clown Corps. It was made up of local executives and entrepreneurs. I was asked to join and my experience in the group profiled by the local newspaper. The group raises money for Detroit and for the Detroit Thanksgiving Day Parade, an important event that brings people into the city and helps retain a connection to it. We all were dressed as clowns (see my photo with my daugher) and we marched in the parade, handing out gifts to kids along the route. It was a longstanding and successful fundraising program with excellent longstanding membership. One of the hard part of including a group of individuals such as this is that they don’t have much that they haven’t already accomplished. And so the Distinguished Clown Corps created levels of aspiration that couldn’t not be bought by money but with service. If you had 3 years of service, you were made a 2-piece clown costume. After 5 years, gold and silver. And the really special level, after 25 years of service, you were able to wear a red velvet cape.

What’s the point? These levels, to which there were no shortcuts besides participation, create motivation to stay involved. You aspired to those higher levels. You stayed engaged, not just because it was a good idea, but also because you might someday get to be one of those clowns with the red velvet cape.

You aren’t going to give out red velvet capes as part of your change program (and if you do, let me know because I want to hear about it). But the point is, it is useful to create aspirational levels. These aspirational levels are not a replacement for the intrinsic value of participation. It is an enhancement to it. It is a reminder of it. And it helps to make doing the right thing just a little bit more fun.