Ask any Swede about September 3, 1967—also known as H Day—and you are likely to get a lively response. On that day, the country’s millions of residents switched from driving on the left side of the road to driving on the right.
Here's the story: Driving on the left had roots in riding horses—having one’s right hand free meant easy access to horse reigns or a sword, toward the center of the road. Then automobiles came on the scene, and most Swedish autos were built for export and right-side driving. When these “driving on the outside” state of affairs made for very unsafe driving conditions, Sweden put it to a vote. The result? People overwhelmingly disapproved of the change out of concern for safety and the ability to adopt the new pratice—and likely the big effort of doing so, too. This is a case of Status Quo Bias—the idea that change is bad, same is good—at work. It's in our nature as humans to nonconsciously believe that whatever situation currently exists is better than what doesn't exist.
Despite the poor voting results, the Swedish government—with the good of its people in mind—pushed the change forward anyway. So now the task was to not only seamlessly transition, but to win hearts and minds as well. Entire departments were created to help with the transition—to ensure people knew what to do, and why they were doing it. There was even a nationwide contest for the best original pop song that would help people remember to drive on the right.
The change happened overnight, and ultimately it was done with little problem. This was due to near-ubiquitous awareness, and (probably) heightened caution due to new circumstances. Traffic issues and deaths decreased by orders of magnitude. In fact, the process was such a success that four other countries followed suit in the ensuing years.
In the end, Sweden was able to overcome its problem, but not without having to forcibly suppress its citizens’ Status Quo Bias. The success of the project is a great example of the benefits that await us—if only we are willing to open up to change.
For more about the Cognitive Biases—including Status Quo Bias—that get in the way of innovation, check out our book, Outsmart Your Instincts: How the Behavioral Innovation™ Approach Drives Your Company Forward.
Monica Grant is an Innovation Process Consultant at Ideas To Go, an innovation agency that works with Fortune 500 companies in ideation and concept development to incorporate the voice of the consumer.