Getting [someone] to do [something]

5 min read

Have you ever tried to sell something to someone?

Remember that meeting where you had a great idea. You thought of a way to improve a topic in your job. Or even better, a solution to an ongoing problem, something you knew need to be addressed.

So, during the meeting, you explain your great idea. It’s so damn clear inside your head! Yet, you don’t get the buy-in. Or even worse: some say “fine”, but nothing happens in the following days.

Have you ever lived a similar experience?

Yeah, who doesn’t, right?

Thing is — and I discovered it the hard way- a problem existing is not enough reason to trigger action towards solving it.

What?” you might say. “If I have a problem and someone offers me a solution, you bet I would implement it!”.

Well, that’s not true. Sorry about that.

You identify a big problem. You find a quite well-crafted solution. You try to sell it to people who, allegedly, suffer the issue. And Bam!… Nothing happens.

Mental models behind convincing people

Mental what?

A mental model is a mental representation of how everything works — our mind, ourselves, the World, everything. We use models to help us represent the actual reality surrounding us. We need to simplify it and come up to a bite-sized version of that reality.

So, every model is inherently wrong. But, as the aphorism says, all models are wrong but some are useful.

They are so powerful everyone should be aware of them — after all, we use them. All the time. The key difference is knowing you do so and using it to your advantage.

The power behind mental models is that they are applied to several fields of knowledge. They come from an economics, physics, biology, philosophy, whatever. But they can be easily mapped into other disciplines.

So, let’s explore what they say about convincing people.


During my time as a member of an online marketing team, I learned about this model called “MAT”, created by Dr. Fogg. It states the following:

In order for a behavior to happen, three conditions must be fulfilled.
A motivation to do the behavior, the ability to do so, and a trigger that triggers the action. When a behavior does not occur, at least one of those three elements is missing.

So we need three ingredients.

We need some trigger to put everything in motion. This trigger could be anything. In software, think of a bug that takes a team several hours to fix. A lost project for a misunderstanding. The announcement of someone leaving. Things that might make you want to change something.

Ability refers to the individual being able to actually do something to fix it. The easier the thing, the more likely the thing will get done. You need a lot of motivation (or a hell of a trigger) to start something that requires a lot of effort. Yet, an easier task will likely happen, even with a less powerful trigger or motivation.

Finally, you need some motivation to start the whole process.

And talking about motivation

Driving people

This made me think of something else. When I read Drive, by Dan Pink, (one of the best books I’ve ever read. Period) I learned about the intrinsic motivators that make us stand up and do things.

Pink identifies 3 basic intrinsic modifiers:

  • The willingness to master our craft.
  • The autonomy of doing what we think is best, the way we think is best.
  • The purpose of the task we want to do.

(Remember that Pink talks about intrinsic motivators. An extrinsic motivator would be getting paid or, well, not getting hit with a whip).

So as long as you want to change someone else’s behavior, and not only force them to do something, you should have intrinsic motivators in mind. And sell them as incentives.

Talking about incentives

Selling a Design System

Reading Smashing Magazine #6 book (a must read, if I may), the first chapter caught my eye. Laura Elizabeth writes there about Design Systems, and how to “sell” them to both your colleagues and people with resources (a.k.a. money and time) to finance the project.

She points to three main topics that need to be addressed to get a buy-in from the stakeholders:

  1. Resources. What will we need to put things in motion and support them all along the way?
  2. Incentives. What are the potential benefits of a Design System?
  3. Consequences. What will happen if we don’t adopt a Design System?

I don’t want to spoil the whole text Laura wrote (read the book 😜), but what she described as consequences reminded me of Cost of Opportunity. See what I did there? Another mental model has joined the room.

Imagine that someone offers you to two envelopes with money, one containing twice as much as the other one. Don’t worry, this is not the Two Envelopes Problem.

You might pick whatever envelope you want, and I’m quite sure your mind will start doubting. “Hey, folk. You sure about this? Don’t you want to pick the other one? We might not be winning the bigger pot!”. That’s our mind being played by the cost of opportunity.

Bear in mind the cost of not adopting an idea/tool/whatever, not only the direct benefits of doing so.

You see, I love when ideas add up and sustain each other like a latticework. We talked about online marketing, psychology, and design systems. We combined learnings from several sources and ended up seeing that they all boil down to basic principles.

All this exploration reminded me of First Principles mental model. Philosophy over here, now.

This is the power of mental models. Simple but powerful frames that you use as building blocks to create more complex ideas. Same thing we do nowadays to create User Interfaces using VueJS or React. What? Connecting the dots again?

Have you ever noticed any other pattern that you might use in several knowledge fields?