Many of us have found ourselves in situations with others wondering “How can I get them to do it?”. What if we instead asked “How can I make things easier for them?”

That is the concept of removing obstacles outlined by Daniel Kahneman, in an interview on the Freakonomics podcast (#306). Kahneman won the Nobel prize for his work on behavioral economics.

He described behavior as an equilibrium between driving and restraining forces. We often make assumptions to influence and “seal the deal” by providing incentives for people to act. Kahneman argued that the key is instead to make things as simple as possible for someone to act by removing obstacles that are in the way (lessen restraining forces) rather than trying to incentivize them to do something (driving forces). This idea was previously described by psychologist Kurt Lewin.

It is a natural tendency to want to drive things, therefore we focus on incentives. Kahneman suggests to instead consider what is holding someone back. If the anchor is too heavy and not removed, all the driving in the world won’t free someone to act.

Incentives may not only fail to address the real issue but also cause unnecessary concessions, waste time and money, and provide short term gains to the detriment of longer term commitments. Kahneman suggests that looking at the situation from another individual’s point of view is the only way you can find the obstacles. For most of us that is not a natural thing to do. So how do we do it?

Let’s say that your company has some novel technology and wants to collaborate with Company B, a respected industry leader with expertise and resources. You have been in discussions with Company B to initiate the partnership, however the planning discussions have become bogged down. You even incentivized them by reducing the budget in response to their comments about the project costs. However, Company B did not exactly jump at the offer and has not even responded. What should you do now? You could keep offering additional incentives, or try to understand what could be in the way.

For example, you might ask “Based on our last cost reduction proposal, it seems like cost is not the issue. Is that right?” or, “What do your colleagues on the technical team see as the main challenges with the project?”

Such questions provide the opportunity to take the discussion in new directions. For example, you may find that the technical team finds the project is too risky. Rather than reducing costs, you can explore ways to lower the risks for Company B while still making it feasible and attractive to your company.

In this example the obstacle was the perceived risk of the project itself and not the cost. Consider the extreme case of the incentive where you agreed to perform your share of the work for free. Company B would still have to commit time and resources to tasks they deemed as premature and too risky. They may still elect not to proceed. However, by identifying and addressing the real obstacle, you make it easier for them to move forward.