When it comes to organisational change, it's rare for governments to be more innovative than commercial organisations. But that seems to the case when it comes to the application of behavioural science, a branch of psychology that aims to understand how and why individuals and groups behave the way that they do.
And although you may not be familiar with the term behavioural science, you may well be familiar with the famous story that describes how it was used to increase hotel towel reuse.
Instead of the usual message about towel re-use being good for the environment, psychologist Robert Cialdini asked his researchers to change the message, in some rooms, to say:
"The majority of guests who stay in this hotel reuse their towels at least once during their stay".
The result was that reuse was 26% higher than in the rooms with the standard environmental message.
The researchers then modified the message still further, to be more specific, by saying that guests in that particular room reused towels at least once during their stay. The result was that reuse increased to 33% higher than the standard message.
This was a clever use of what psychologists call social proof. In essence, social proof
is our innate and unconscious desire to conform to group norms. And social proof is just one of six core principles that Cialdini lists in his book Influence:
Commitment and consistency
Now it's fair to say that large organisations are not completely oblivious to this. Advertising agencies and astute sales and marketing people use a fair amount of behavioural science, whether based on scientific research, or simply decades of trial and error. But the ability to understand and influence behaviour goes way beyond selling stuff.
In 2009, two academics, Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein wrote a book entitled Nudge. Their aim in writing the book was to illustrate how behavioural science could be used to influence public policy outcomes. Indeed, the subtitle of their book is Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness.
Nudge was picked up with surprising alacrity by the UK government who, in 2010, established The Behavioural Insights Team, or The nudge Unit, as it soon became known.
Among its achievements, it claims to have recouped around £30m per year in missing income tax, by introducing new reminder letters that informed recipients that most of their neighbours had already paid. Sound familiar?
But its repertoire is not limited to copying Cialdini's towel experiment. There a catalogue of other examples, using a variety of behavioural science tools, to make small, inexpensive changes that have resulted in significant changes in public behaviour.
The unit has now quadrupled in size and been spun off a as private company, jointly owned by the government and its employees, with an eager list of governments and corporations who are keen to use its expertise.
Now, I am conscious as I write this article that the term behavioural science might sound intimidating and could imply that one needs a level of deep expertise to use it. So, instead, think terms of nudges. Small, friendly and easy.
The thing about nudges is that you don't have to be psychologist to try them out.
David Halpern, the CEO of The Nudge Unit said that one his proudest achievements was to bring experimentation and the scientific method into government policy making. Nudges don't always work, he says, but instead of big multi-million pound bets, policy makers are increasingly creating inexpensive, low-risk experiments to find out what actually does work.
So if you are engaged in organisational change, think about the extent to which success is dependent on behaviour. Perhaps what you need is your own nudge unit?