Driving a Cadillac on Spare Tires: The Power of Analogy for Getting into Team Flow

The use of analogy can be a strong factor in building, inspiring and motivating teams into flow, meaning that they have reached a state of high performance with happiness and meaning.  Over the next few weeks, I am going to talk about three power levers, tools that can help take some of the pressure off a team’s shoulders. Such levers are super successful in getting teams into flow. These levers are the power of analogy, the power of a mantra, and the power of award.

Today the focus is the power of analogy and its role in changing heart and mind.

Don’t Run a Cadillac on Spare Tires

One recent project I advised, we went live on a single day with a new electronic medical record at over 250 separate physician practices.  It was a billion dollar enterprise! For years, the physicians in these locations had been using laptops (a mobile device) to do their daily work.

This was problem for us because our previous experience as well as industry studies had shown that using an EMR on a desktop (a fixed device) in the patient exam room has significant benefits for the patient and the clinic. It had long been a desire by organization leaders to place desktops in the exam rooms but since the physician practice itself had to pay for the new equipment, it was a big deterrent to make the change. As a result, laptop use remained unchanged, in fact, it was close to 85% laptop use.

Knowing we faced an uphill battle to change physician opinion, we started early and worked hard to demonstrate and communicate the main benefits that a fixed device provides:

  • The clinic team’s workflow improves by streamlining tasks
  • Physician productivity in documenting the patient’s visit during the exam is enhanced
  • Patient engagement improves as patients and physicians can dialogue and see information on the computer together
  • Fixed devices are less costly to purchase and maintain

Yet, even after several months of communications, software demonstrations and meetings, our orders for desktop hardware had not changed. We were frustrated.  Our deadline to get the hardware order was coming up so we tried one more time.

We created an evening open house where we showed the software and we invited everybody! Over 800 physicians and their clinic staff. In planning for this last big push to change opinion, one of the IT executives called me. His team was responsible for the deployment of the hardware. (Don’t forget, this was a billion dollar enterprise!) Based on our previous rollout success, we knew physicians would be happiest with the desktop choice in the long run. Productivity improves and patients love having desktops in the exam room! But still we were not winning the argument with the physicians to make the switch. Out of exasperation he objected, “This EMR is the Cadillac and we are going to run it on spare tires!”

Wow! This powerful analogy summarized the situation so vividly! We ran with it everywhere we could. We added it to meeting agendas. We used it in our conversations: “Remember, don’t run on Spare Tires!” And in our last big event, the software demonstration open house, we put it on every single poster near a computer.

That night of the open house, something different happened. Some of the attendees started complaining. Our productivity data was wrong. We were too heavy-handed, they said. This was new! But some other attendees instead liked the analogy and started using it in conversations with each other. Now they were listening and talking! Not just us!

Green light!! We charged on! Even when took heat for our analogy, we used it in every chance, in every conversation we could! In the end, the results spoke for themselves. When the physicians placed the hardware order, 75% were for desktops. Quite the flip from 85% laptop to 75% desktop. Change had occurred!

Why did this work? How did our Cadillac analogy drive a change in heart and mind?

  • It Used Intuitive Imagery
    First, it contained common imagery that everyone could intuitively understand, no explanation needed. They could see the Cadillac in their mind. They could almost feel themselves opening up on the freeway! A Cadillac is not just a quality vehicle, it’s a smooth ride; synonymous with perfection. So why would anyone buying their industry’s Cadillac, ruin that experience with spare tires?
  • It Was Sticky
    Some physicians started using this analogy themselves with their peers and it spread quickly. The concept was memorable, short and easy to repeat. Even those who had been challenging the switch looked at it with a new lens when faced with this simple, but elegant analogy. It was a powerful argument.
  • It Provided an Internal Viewpoint of Self
    The most important component of this analogy is that it spoke to physicians’ internal viewpoint of themselves and their work. The Cadillac has a wonderful reputation for being the best of the best, the cream of the crop. The analogy conveyed a sense of quality and prestige these physicians could identify with. And perhaps an even more powerful motivation to change is that physicians also want to share that quality experience with their patients.


The ability to convert hearts and minds is challenging. It is hard work. However, if you think of the lever through its ability to align heart and mind into agreement, you start to see its power. You are lifting the manageable weight. And regardless of additional resources required, the fulcrum will handle the rest. It lifts, thus providing momentum and power.

The surprising part of this story is that data on productivity and cost did not change minds.  Improving productivity or saving money was not enough to drive behavior change. To change the mind, we must first speak to the heart. Address the emotional needs of our audience, our customers, and our colleagues to get them into team flow.

To be successful in IT, make complex concepts simple and compelling to win heart and mind. In doing so, we increase both understanding and commitment to our technology transformations. What analogies have you used successfully? I would love to hear yours.

My vision is to create an online community of support for and about change makers.  Please help me get this conversation started! Reach out to me in the comments below.

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