The dog bit Johnny. Johnny bit the dog. Same exact words, different syntax, totally different experience.

— Tony Robbins from the Tim Ferriss Show #37

While dabbling in other languages, I’ve come to appreciate the importance that sequence plays in our communication. Particularly as a native English speaker. We can use the same words as those found in other languages but if those words are placed in a non-English order, we end up with complete gibberish. This article’s title is a fine example. It seems clear that, for my language, the sequence matters most.

Additionally, I’ve come to appreciate the need for sequence in education. When programming curriculums, it’s vital for teachers to build a steady-yet-gentle ramp for most younger students to gradually build proficiency in a topic. This engages the concept of “flow”, where students can be engaged something just slightly beyond their capabilities but still within their grasp.

That requires some seriously thoughtful design. Specifically for generating a balanced interplay between “fun” and “work” so that both can be more deeply enjoyed. A’la School of Rock. That wasn’t just a good movie or a good school. As I’ve written before, it was a good use of design thinking.

The order of the things you create, whether writing an article title or a school curriculum, certainly matters a lot.

More Suggestive Than We Realize

This is primarily due to the anchoring effect. I wrote about that last week with relation to sales and salary negotiations. But it’s not just about money and numbers. Here’s the best experiment I’ve ever come across on the concept. This is based on the results of two surveys with questions offered in two distinct orders and is featured in this weeks’ book, Nudge. To describe it briefly:

When college students were asked (a) how happy are you, then (b) how often are you dating, there was 0.11 correlation in the answers. But when the questions were reversed, the correlation rose to 0.62. The dating question framed/anchored the definition of happiness.

This is the anchoring effect at its finest and clearly shows why sequence matters. If you’re first asked your dating status, and then asked your happiness level, your mind is primed to conceive happiness through the dating lens. I’m not dating anyone so I must not be very happy.

It reminds me of a fantastic quote regarding social media from Steven Furtick. This one’s practically a classic now:

The reason we struggle with insecurity is because we compare our behind the scenes with everyone else’s highlight reel. — Steven Furtick

Your friends and their social media highlight reels can occasionally serve as a perverse anchor of sorts. Sometimes their positive social media posts make us happy. Sometimes they make us sad. It all depends on the day—or rather, the specific sequence and context of information leading to the point at which you read their latest updates. If you feel a bit of envy or frustration when reading this stuff, it’s likely because you had a tough day, or you’re tired, or you just experience some minor setback a few minutes beforehand that put you in a bad mood.

The Power Of A Deliberate Anchor

A different sequence creates a different anchor, a different priming effect, and thus a different experience. Imagine accessing that same social media highlight reel after you just practiced a loving kindness meditation. The effort of deliberately wishing your friends well, focusing on their wellbeing in a five minute meditation, puts you in a very different state. Now their updates are something you celebrate. You’re removed from self-involvement and your willful desire for their happiness is like a dream that now appears to come true as you see the latest news of their vacation or promotion. The emotional pump is primed with a different fuel.

Again, it can be called an anchoring effect, a priming effect, or a framing effect but the idea in all three concepts is the same: sequence matters. This is a nudge of sorts. Or it can be.

We need these anchors. Otherwise, the mere barrage of facts is too difficult to make into sense. Consider the way news anchors prime you with the start of any report. “A terrible tragedy today as … “ or “And now for something a little more light-hearted …”. Those transitions are priming mechanisms that cue you towards the sort of reaction the script writers intend. That feels very manipulative. But these transitions are also just that—a signal sent to the collective audience’s mind telling them to prepare for what comes next. That feels helpful.  

Every Step An Anchor For The Next

The great scholar on all this is Dr. Robert Cialdini. His fabulous book Pre-Suasion will be a featured book one of these days. But for now, with our focus on Thaler and Sunstein’s classic, Nudge, I want to consider the effect an anchoring nudge can have on new hire in a company.

The first few days in a job are often the worst days. You don’t know anyone, you have boring orientation meetings, you’re drilled with rote compliance material from HR, you fill out forms, get your photo taken for your prox card (a very DMV-esque experience), and then sent off to find your way to your office. When you arrive, people think you’re some kind of lost customer. Then your sent to a desk that might not even have a computer. Or maybe you don’t have a login. Or an email. This actually happens in 2018. Suddenly, what was supposed to be orientation has left you very disoriented.

And while many companies have strengthened this process, I think the real challenge comes later in the sequence. Orientation isn’t merely an onboarding experience. It’s a six-month to possibly 12-month process and there are many critical points along the way, from Day 4 to Day 40.

What would be a sign that a new hire is truly doing well in Week 3? How can Week 2 prime them for that success? Most managers don’t have the time or energy or ability to answer that question. But a mindful approach, with careful nudges at every point, would definitely help.

One small example: early feedback to a new hire is vital. So what if, at the end of each week, there is a thirty-minute small team huddle between the group—new hire included—to review the week’s work, highlight success, reflect on lessons, offer encouragement (especially to the new hire), and set the next week’s course? This bit retrospection plus speculation, done in a team environment with everyone involved, does three things: first, it sets a natural anchor for the next week; second, it gives an avenue for the team to verbally process their thoughts about the new hire in a constructive team-view context; third, it builds a nudge for the whole group to think and act as a group, new hire included.  

Perhaps an idea worth considering? Even without a new hire? After all, these conversations happen regardless (usually as gossip and complaining). So why not anchor that energy around a formal conversation on a better day for a better purpose?

A new hire is a great time to institute that practice. There is a new environment, a new context. A new anchor of sorts. We want a new team meeting format but we’ll wait for the arrival of this new hire so it has a more natural context to start.

To conclude, anchors exist everywhere. Frames and priming effects abound. The more we make a practice of creating these effects ourselves, in our own deliberate fashion, the more we’re able to harness their power for our own means. Set the stage with these anchors, develop a great sequence where each anchor provides an upward step to the next. Timing is everything. Thankfully, we can control some of that.

The matters sequence. Therefore, the sequence matters.