Designing blueprints for behavior change with Ruth Schmidt

PodcastNovember 29, 2021
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I cannot tell you how many times I’ve been in organizations that are wringing their hands, they’re wanting people to be innovative. They say, “We keep telling people to be innovative, and nobody is. What’s wrong?” And then you dig under the hood and you realize how they’re configured, how the structures are and how people move up, what people are held accountable for, what the metrics are. Pretty much everything is set up to do exactly the inverse of innovative.

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In this week’s episode, Brooke speaks to Ruth Schmidt, Associate Professor at the Illinois Institute of Technology’s Institute of Design, and expert in all things related to behavioral design and its application to organizational strategy. Their conversation looks at the evolution of choice architecture to a deeply human-centered evaluation of organizational systems and processes, and how it’s impacting behavioral change strategies, and ultimately, organizational success. Some of the things discussed include:

  • How insights from behavioral science and behavioral design can be used to complement each other in addressing organizational challenges, despite their differences in approach.
  • Balancing evidence of something working in the past, with evidence that something else may work in the future.
  • How behavioral design can improve strategy – moving from choice architecture to choice infrastructure.
  • Behavioral design and innovation. Having a true understanding of why you’re trying to innovate and aligning your systems, culture, and incentives with that ambition.
  • The role of leadership, and why behavioral interventions need to be driven both from the top-down and the bottom-up.

The conversation continues

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Key Quotes

Evidence – Something That Works & Something That Could Work

“Evidence that is driven by evaluation is more, what I call, ‘evidence of something working’. Where I might center where design focuses, I call that ‘evidence for solutions that could work’. So when you balance evidence for possibilities, combined with evidence of the fact that they work, that’s where you can maybe be both expansive in terms of what you’re looking for, but also know that you’re delivering the goods.”

Just ‘Cause The Cool Kids Are Doing It, Doesn’t Mean You Should Too…

“Peer pressure doesn’t go away after high school. It’s still there in big organizations. “Shiny big data”, “AI looks great!” But I think oftentimes, those organizations may not have thought through why it’s useful. What are the things that are going to actually help them achieve what they want? Why is it important to support certain types of either technologies or organizational capabilities?”

Aligning Incentives With Goals

“One way that we saw higher level leaders actually stick to innovation mandates, for example, is to actually attach it to their bonuses. Shockingly, people would do an awful lot if they think their bonus is going to be decreased at the end of the year.”

Choice Architecture to Choice Infrastructure

“Behavioral science has been very good at certain types of problems, and in what Richard Thaler calls interior design, interior decoration, it’s aced that. But what if behavioral science was more oriented towards some of those infrastructural parts… things like plumbing or electrics, those underlying conditions that allow a space to work.”

Learning Through Doing

“What I’ve seen work quite well, for example, is helping companies to develop capabilities in what it is they’re trying to do, and then also, in parallel, running a project which allows them to test those out. So in a sense, you’re creating a prototyping machine within an organization, which can make it much more clear and much more transparent to folks who may not be involved, why this is worth doing, the fact that there’s actually momentum and emphasis behind it.” 

What We Should Do Versus What We Are Willing To Risk

“There’s a tension between what we feel we should do, but also the level of risk that we’re willing to embrace. And part of that is what ordinary people get stressed out by, whether  it’s about achieving good health or becoming successful and being financially solvent towards the future. This present tense future tension is really difficult to navigate for any individual, more so for a company, in many ways.”


Brooke: Hello, everyone, and welcome to the podcast of The Decision Lab, a socially conscious applied research firm that uses behavioral science to improve outcomes for all of society. My name is Brooke Struck, a research director at TDL, and I’ll be your host for the discussion. My guest today is Ruth Schmidt, Professor of Behavioral Design at the Institute of Design at IIT, that’s the Illinois Institute of Technology. In today’s episode, we’ll be talking about mixing design with behavioral insights, using this mixture to drive strategy and moving from choice architecture to choice infrastructure. Ruth, thanks for joining us.

Ruth: It’s absolutely my pleasure. Looking forward to it.

Brooke: Same. Please tell us a bit about yourself and what you’re up to these days. What is it about design and behavior that keeps people up at night?

Ruth: Well, my entry into behavioral design or behavioral science actually started way back, I guess, in 2008 or so, when, if you did a Google search – because what else are you going to do if you’re looking and you’re interested –  turned out nothing at the time, which is hilarious now, because if you search for those terms, there are whole firms dedicated to behavioral design and there are plenty of literature and books, articles, etc. But what I find really exciting and interesting about the intersection of behavioral science and design is that, in some ways they are natural collaborators, and in other ways, rather strange bedfellows, if you know that term from Shakespeare.  very complementary, but they also go about problem solving in different ways. So many of the same concerns.

Both are very obsessed with behavior and people, and why people do the weird things they do, but they use very complementary ways of thinking about those challenges. And what I find super exciting and what I spend all of my time working and thinking about these days basically is, how can we augment the power of each with the other? So we’re not purely based in scientific empirical research, which is wonderful but also has its limitations, but also not wholly connected to human centered design and a non-scientific way of thinking about what design can do. So it’s, in a sense, bringing the best of both worlds, is where I like to think I’m spending my energy and seeing where that can help us to solve really difficult problems in better ways.

Brooke: Okay, let’s walk through a practical example here and use it to try to illustrate what some of the commonalities and what some of the tensions are between these two things. So is there a problem that you’ve got in mind that you’d like to walk through? 

Ruth: Well, it’s sort of a cliche these days to use COVID, but it’s so chock full of really great examples, in some ways. When we think about what behavioral science can do there, there’s obviously no shortage of thinking about, for example, borrowing from flu vaccination to consider how to vaccinate people more effectively and at higher rates. How do we think about changing behaviors in terms of working from home, and how we might consider the new behaviors that come with behavioral change that we’ve all been dealing with. So that’s a way in which we can absolutely learn from the literature. We can learn from what has worked well, what hasn’t worked well, we can contextualize those solutions, and we can put those out into the world and hopefully do all the good things we want to do, like increase vaccination rates.

What I see design being able to offer in that context is that there are actually some really significant differences in terms of what it is that we’re trying to solve for. So we can try to look at what we know, for example, from flu vaccines in terms of messaging and nudges to increase those rates. But we also can use human-centered design, for example, to recognize, what are some of the different types of situations that people are dealing with, and the different conditions that we’re designing into? A really great example of this, specifically around vaccines, is that there was a lot of effort put into messaging and figuring out how to increase rates looking at vaccine hesitancy more as a messaging and a framing challenge, and behavioral science has a ton to offer in that regard. And yet, part of what we started to see, and what became increasingly obvious, is that if you talk to people, we realized that the real challenge there is sometimes fear of not being able to take time off, so the uncertainty of getting vaccinated and not having time to recover, or the concerns about working and not being able to take time  to get the shot itself, but also the side effects can be fairly significant.

So a human-centered design project would probably focus and unearth those issues in a quicker way, whereas the behavioral science issues that come out of, well, how do we actually message well, once we know what those issues are? – is where the two can blend together really nicely, I think.

Brooke: And where do you see some potential divergences? Like, do you see something around the way that solutions might get built, for instance, where someone who’s more fluent in human-centered design would turn to the left, whereas someone who’s more focused on behavioral insights would be more likely to turn to the right?

Ruth: I think testing actually and evaluation is a big part of that, partly because oftentimes, design is designing into new environments, so it’s less about behavioral change in many cases. If you’re trying to invent or create … not invent, that’s maybe the wrong word, but if you’re trying to create something new, it can be a lot harder to say, “Well, here’s our starting point and there’s our ending point.” Or, “Here’s an AP test that we can start to identify”. So that’s where things like field experiments start to get there to a certain extent, but designers are often much more reliant on things like prototyping and projecting into what doesn’t yet exist, whereas certainly behavioral science, one of its bread and butter strong points is a really, really rigorous approach to testing. And that’s actually,when we think about bringing the fields together, where there can be a point of tension, because if you’re tempted to design things that you can test, it might mean that there will be certain types of challenges that you may be less likely to address. It also means, hopefully, that the two disciplines can complement and supplement where some are stronger and weaker, and at the very least, contribute to developing strong hypotheses. But I think testing in particular is a place where there really is this strong divergence about what ‘good’ looks like.

Brooke: Right. Right. So certainly, one of the things that you mentioned there is around controlled field experiments and A/B testing. And there seems to be some tacit sense of hierarchies of evidence there that might produce some kinds of clashes between people who have come from one background versus another.

Ruth: Yes. And that goes along, I think, with a very, very long history of having science and proof and quantifiable evidence count for a lot.I’m not putting that down at all or making fun of it, it’s absolutely essential. What I do think can get in the way is when the projects or the solutions, the challenges that you’re focusing on, only lend themselves to a certain kind of testing. What that can do is it can sometimes limit the hypotheses that you even develop. So in that case, we already know that diversity and thinking can create better solutions and I think that’s a natural place for it.

The notion of evidence itself is actually super interesting, because I think the sense of evidence that is more driven by evaluation is more, what I call, ‘evidence of something working’. Where I might center where design focuses, sometimes I call that ‘evidence for solutions that could work’. So when you balance evidence for possibilities, combined with evidence of the fact that they work, that’s where you can maybe be both expansive in terms of what you’re looking for, but also know that you’re delivering the goods. You don’t want to put solutions out into the world that you’re just guessing. Design has enough of a reputation for being hand wavy. I don’t want to contribute to more of that.

Brooke: Right. So we’ll come back to that in a couple of minutes. For now, I want to pivot slightly and talk about some of the work that you’re doing, pushing behavioral design deeper into strategy. So moving from what is often talked about as choice architecture to what you’ve been referring to as choice infrastructure, which I will note in passing is a term that I absolutely love. What does this shift look like and what is the significance of shifting from behavioral insights in the context of choice architecture to really this deeper choice infrastructure and strategy?

Ruth: So taking a strategic view on behavioral science and behavioral design, I know it may rankle some, because so much of where it earned its credibility as a field has been in being able to think small, not’s actually been a long standing issue, as I’ve been involved in the field, but also recognizing how we can apply these insights to larger problems, and also, frankly, combined with my background, which comes from more of a strategic approach. I think that there’s an enormous potential in taking those insights and applying them just to different types of challenges. And there’s a really great quote, there’s a piece that Richard Thaler wrote a couple of months ago, which I know you’re familiar with too, which is basically making the same argument, that behavioral science has been very good at certain types of problems, and in, what he calls interior design, interior decoration, it’s aced that.

But what if behavioral science was more oriented towards some of those infrastructural parts? I don’t think he uses that term. But what he describes are things like plumbing or electrics, those underlying conditions that allow a space to work. And that same perspective, I think, is very much what has influenced my shift in thinking and my work from, “Great, we’ve got choice architecture down, but if we don’t consider the conditions that we’re designing into and we don’t, as a field, get really, really good at considering how we can create conditions that aren’t just about individual point solutions, but can create, especially,at an organizational level, what we’re designing into and how we can support and enable really good choice architecture. We’re really only solving part of the challenge. So that shift, I think, has occurred for me over time, but it’s in some ways a natural evolution of what the field is good at and how to expand upon that, I think.

Brooke: Right. And I think that that loops back nicely to the challenge that we were talking about before, around these kinds of hierarchies of evidence and preferentially selecting for things that are more amenable to testing, especially with quantitative methods. So if strategy is all about branching out into the uncharted territory of asking these ‘What if?’ questions, then that’s a bit of a mismatch with this much more hierarchical evidential view, where we say actually, it’s more about optimizing delivery, that’s where this kind of quantitative testing really excels. Once the options are already articulated, funneling people towards the optimal option for them is much more quantitatively tractable. By contrast, if we have to figure out what the choices are that we should even make available in the first place, that’s not necessarily something that quantitative testing is really well set up to help us with.

Ruth: I think that’s exactly right. It’s not saying that one kind of problem solving is good and the other is bad. I think it is opening the door to being able to create conditions that are very good for different types of solutions, so that you can get that quantitative precision, all those wonderful things that come with much more tightly controlled experiments, and the things that nudges and other types of choice architecture are well designed to do. But exactly, it means that you’re thinking about the capabilities that support those things. And this is part of where coming from a strategy background can be quite helpful. Because it’s not like the world lacks some of those approaches. It’s just that right now they’re probably a little bit more centered and more comfortable in the business world, than in the behavioral science world.

So that’s, again, where I think this combination, in a little bit of a blend of superpowers, can get us somewhere really successful, not just interesting, but much more effective. Because we can learn from things like capability building or scenario planning, which are very centered in business challenges that are very strategically oriented and just simply haven’t been applied, I think, as much to these types of problems.

Brooke: Let’s dig into strategy and perhaps some of the weaker points of strategy. Lots of organizations get swept along with these fads, like we need more synergy, more innovation, more data, bigger data, smarter data, more AI….

Ruth: More! Always more!

Brooke: Yes, that’s right!Whatever your buzzword is, just apply it. And in fact, that’s the way that at least in this hackneyed view of the business world, that’s how all things advance. It’s like there’s the fad of the day and no matter what the problem is, the solution is always like ‘more X’, and it’s just about figuring out, what is buzzword X at the moment right now? That’s the right thing to apply in this case. But when that happens, the actual practicalities and even the purpose of working towards these goals, often don’t keep up with the energy that’s building around that abstract idea. Like we start to get so excited and all hot to trot about innovation, and what doesn’t keep up with that excitement and that energy is the practicality of what is it going to look like within our organization.

 Iff for instance, we relaxed some of the things that would be necessary for innovation, such as, we don’t need people to be as blindly obedient as they may have previously been. We want them to shake things up a little bit more and to be, in a sense, more disagreeable. We don’t think through those practicalities, as we get all hot to trot on innovation. We also sometimes even lose track of what it is that we’re trying to solve with more innovation. Like, these terms, these ideas become ends in themselves, and we’re so fixated on them.

How do we end up in these circumstances? Where are these abstract ideas? We end up in this goal displacement where the abstract idea becomes that thing in itself that we’re trying to achieve, and the concrete implications of what’s going to be involved and why it is that these things are useful to do in the first place, just don’t keep up. How do we end up with these gaps arising?

Ruth: So there is a lot to unpack there. I mean, part of it is, of course, competition. Organizations, entities, businesses, they don’t want to be 3rd, they don’t want to be 10th, they want to be 1sttypically. So there is often this jockeying for what good looks like in your industry. And innovation, I have such mixed feelings about that word. Because even though I spent a pretty substantial part of my career in what could be considered innovation strategy or innovation consulting, that word has been overused. It’s almost like the equivalent of nudge or design thinking, these words that get used so much that they completely lose their meaning. Innovation is kind of there too. And yet, innovating and thinking forward, these are all natural forces that organizations have. They want to evolve, they want to adapt.

I think where the gap comes in, is when you can recognize “Okay, we need to evolve, we need to get better at what we’re doing, but here we are in our current state.” And what often happens is that the words get used as a proxy or a substitute for the conditions that actually enable that thing. So innovation is a wonderful example where, I cannot tell you how many times I’ve been in organizations that are wringing their hands, they’re wanting people to be innovative. They say, “We keep telling people to be innovative, and nobody is. What’s wrong?” And then you start to dig under the hood and you start to realize how they’re configured, how the structures are and how people move up, what people are held accountable for, what the metrics are that tell you you’re doing well. Pretty much everything chock a block is set up to do exactly the inverse of what one might consider innovative. So that to me is actually a really interesting behavioral challenge because essentially it’s saying one thing and getting another, but it’s because essentially, like the organizational infrastructure is messed up, it’s not creating the possibilities that you actually want to be there. So that’s one flavor of the challenge, I think, that we definitely run into there.

And then in terms of these gaps between what we want and then recognizing, “Is that actually what we want?” I think a big part of that is also not really knowing what we want, but knowing that there are certain things that everyone else is wanting. I mean, peer pressure doesn’t go away after high school. It’s still there in big organizations. Shiny big data, AI looks great! But I think oftentimes, those organizations may not have thought through why it’s useful. What are the things that are going to actually help them achieve what they want? Why is it important to support certain types of either technologies or organizational capabilities?

And just one last quick thought, there was … I wish I remembered who the author was, and this is bad on me. But there’s something called the mirroring hypothesis, which is…I’m going to butcher the more lengthy, thoughtful definition of it! But it’s essentially that the state that you’re in and the way that you’re configured limits what you can see, you can do, and what you think about doing also limits how you’re configured. So essentially, it’s the snake eating its tail business where, to some extent, it’s really, really hard to break out of that cycle, unless you’re incredibly deliberate about it. So that’s a lot of different aspects, I think, because what you describe is a pretty intractable challenge in a lot of organizations. It’s not a small thing and it’s pretty widespread.

Brooke: Yes, I remember in a previous role, I had a supervisor who at one point said “All right, everybody in my unit gets 5% of their time that they can work on innovation projects.” And as a not terribly well behaved individual, I put up my hand and asked why it was 5%, like where the 5% figure came from. And he said that in a previous role, in a previous unit, he had given everybody 10%. But what started happening is all of these innovation projects started to displace core business. And my thought was like, “Oh, okay, so you tried to promote innovation, it actually worked. You were scared by what you saw, so now you dialed it back.” And the message was very clear. It’s like whatever innovating you’re planning to do, don’t expect that that’s going to displace anything that we already do. That was such a telling view on innovation, that innovation is this thing that we’re supposed to be promoting, but there was no conceptual traction between what we’re innovating and why we’re innovating, and actually what business we’re in.

Ruth: Yes. Well, I mean, and here again, I think it naturally comes back to that sense of … Right, because in some ways, you can say, well, that’s a success story. People were actually innovative when you told them to. That’s very rare.

Brooke: Yes, right.

Ruth: Some of the conditions were there, and others were not, clearly. So the fact that there was this time set aside or that people were actually responding to that call to action, that’s pretty impressive. But it also indicates that there were not shared definitions about what and where we were doing this. And also that notion of accountability. Like things get created, and what do they go into. Iff there’s not an environment and those organizational conditions that can allow the right things to happen, then, yes, in some ways, that is a natural result where there’s going to be this very strong mismatch, and again, I’ve seen that in many cases, in organizations across industries, where yes, this tension between what it is that we want, and what is it that we actually get, is rarely as simple, because then it means that we need to actually rethink what we wanted in the first place.

Brooke: Yes, let’s dig into that. So you mentioned part of the challenge here is, we as institutions, as organizations – we aren’t always entirely clear on what it is that we want. How can behavioral design help us to get a bit of traction on that age-old problem?

Ruth: So one project that I’ve actually been working on very specifically, and this is going to sound super abstract, so I’m going to try to concretize it as much as possible. But it’s about the notion of research assessment, academic research assessment and scholarship. So short story is there are many ways that’s currently captured. Things like GIF, or H Index, there are all these very quantifiable, very tidy, ways of looking at things. You can look at citations. You can look at how many grants and how much those grants have brought in. They all tend to be highly quantifiable and highly quantified. That leaves a ton of stuff off the table in terms of what good looks like, because it tends to focus on very specific things. So part of what I’ve been working on with the organization DORA is around, how might we help institutions focus on what actually matters, have what they’re trying to do be more value driven, but also help their organizations to accomplish that? 

One thing that we’ve been working on, for example, is something that we’re calling the SPACE rubric.It gives organizations a few different dimensions where they can assess themselves and see how they, as an institution, are standing up for the things that make sense.

So in this case, the S is the standards and definitions basically. Do we have a shared agreement, when we say we want equity and diversity? Have we all agreed on what that is? Believe it or not, that is actually where a lot of organizations stumble. There’s a lot of fancy stuff they focus on, but they often don’t align on some of those basic elements.

The P stands for processes and mechanics. So often, for example, if you’re interviewing people for a job, or if you’re putting an ad out into the world, if you rely, and this is not news to anyone listening to this, I’m sure if you’re at all behaviorally inclined, you know that people are biased when it comes to hiring, that’s like rule number one. But if you can bake into those processes, either things like blinded resumes, or narrative CBs, things that bring in different types of data that aren’t just reliant on the same old, same old, and that hide some of those halo effect cues that we know impact people, the more that you can, not just rely on people modifying their behavior, but on the processes themselves, that can be super useful.

The A is for accountability, so making sure that people are actually standing up for and held accountable to what they do. In my prior life in the innovation space, for example, one way that we saw higher level leaders actually stick to innovation mandates, for example, is to actually attach it to their bonuses. Shockingly, people would do an awful lot if they think their bonus is going to be decreased at the end of the year.

And then the last two finally, are just recognizing where a culture fits in. So how do we know where cultural aspects and artifacts are going to impose on what good looks like? And then finally, evaluation and iteration. So when we think about those five criteria and those five dimensions of how to build institutional capability, it starts to address what you’re describing, because you’re actually helping people not just think about point solutions, but you’re equipping them as an institution to set themselves up for success through agreement, but also on iterating and feeding data back into the process, so that you’re measuring whether what you’re doing worked.

Brooke: Yes, there’s so much to unpack there. The first thing that I want to mention is that it sounds almost to me like you’re saying that some of the choices that we make about our behavior and the processes that we put in place in an organization can affect culture. But that doesn’t seem to square at all with this idea. I’ve always heard that culture determines everything and there’s absolutely nothing we can do to affect it. Woe is me.

Ruth: No, I think that’s a myth, I would say. But yes, it’s not like culture has nothing to do with it because culture is obviously also highly related to identity. But when behaviors change, culture follows with it, to a certain extent. And so when we have cultures of distrust, for example, because we assume that decisions are made in a back room, and then you increase transparency and you invite people in, that motivation of trust or distrust, that dynamic, can end up changing because you’ve actually changed the terms that behaviors are occurring. So yes, I would actually flip it. I would say that if you are able to increase opportunities to change behavior, that can actually radically influence culture, because you’ve shifted the terms of what people believe in. Identity is never going to go away, but it can surprisingly, really shift how people behave.

Brooke: Yes, that’s interesting. I mean, that’s something that seems to resonate so strongly with something that seems quite counterintuitive for people outside of the behavioral world, but I think inside the behavioral world, this idea that you change behaviors first and minds will follow, rather than insisting that you must change somebody’s mind, and then once you’ve done that, magically, all of the behaviors will just fall into place.

Ruth: Yes. Mindset change and attitude change are notoriously difficult. This is actually reminding me and it’s probably a familiar story to anyone who’s read Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz. But the story about Alcoa where Paul O’Neill comes in and says “Safety, first, everything that we do and all the behaviors around what we do are going to be about safety.” And people thought he was bananas. It made no sense, because he wasn’t talking about shareholder value. That was not what a CEO is supposed to be concerned with! But what it did do, over time, was it created an environment where people’s behaviors changed, because they knew that those behaviors were supported. And it started as a ripple effect, and over time it increased other kinds of behaviors that were really positively impacting the company. 

So yes, it probably does feel counterintuitive because how can doing something impact how you think? But when you start to see that multiplied across on an organizational scale, it can be pretty powerful.

Brooke: Yes. I mean, it’s true at the individual level, as well, like just a very tiny example. I have a secret subversive project ongoing within The Decision Lab to get people to drink more plant-based milk. And so rather than putting long diatribes on Slack to try to convince them of the merits of plant-based milk, which is my usual strategy –  instead, I just decided that I would buy a case of this  UHT packaged stuff that you just put on the shelf and whenever you need another one, you just grab it, rather than having to go to the store and buy a new container of milk every time it’s empty. And like lo and behold, there hasn’t been any dairy milk in the office for weeks and weeks now, just because it’s so much easier to grab the thing that’s right there. And there’s no intellectual pushback against these extremely long and tortured arguments about all of the merits of this thing. It’s just like you grab and use what’s easy. And once you’ve done it often enough, you start to think “ey, this stuff is pretty good!”

I didn’t think that it needed ease in order to be appreciated on its aesthetic merits, but the aesthetic merits seem to fall. So let’s talk about that now in the strategy context. We’ve talked a little bit about how focusing on behavior and getting people to change the way that they act can start to influence the way that they think, and the way that they perceive themselves as well. I’m thinking, especially in an organizational context now. How can we use that to really focus in on the ‘more innovation’, the ‘more data’, all of these super flashy buzzwordy things? What are the kinds of behaviors that we can promote or that we can encourage through behavioral design, to try and just keep those gaps from getting so big between all of that energy that goes with the buzzword, and then trailing miles and miles behind? Between “Oh, yes, we’ll need to do something to actually make that happen”, and“Why are we doing this in the first place?”.

Ruth: So I think part of the answer to that question is probably  around, really stopping and taking a look at what your organization supports. So in some ways, it centers back on this notion of, if you’re telling people to be innovative, you’re telling people we should be using data, or X, Y, or Z, but then everything that you’re doing organizationally to support work, or to increase raises, and any of these motivators that cause people to participate in work  are set against what it is that you’re trying to do, that alone is a non-starter. So I think one of the absolutely critical things to do is to think about your organization as developing capabilities in innovation, for example, rather than being innovative. Because being innovative is almost like an empty term. It’s really difficult to identify what that is, whereas if you’re building a capability in that, you can start to get a little bit more concrete about what that looks like and what you need to support.

There are also, I think, some important elements around not just, and this is hard when you’re probably first starting out, but one of the things that can be effective is also carving out, rather than assuming, and this is maybe less of an explicitly behavioral design or behavioral science solution. But if you have the same behaviors that are occurring and you know what results are going to come from that, you also aren’t going to enable change. So it’s not surprising that often organizations, for example, the term ‘skunkworks’ maybe overused a bit, but recognizing what it is you’re trying to do and optimizing for different types of behaviors and different types of work. What you described earlier in terms of carving out that 5%, for example, can be really challenging, because then essentially what you’re trying to do is you’re trying to combine one mode of operation with business as usual, and that can actually cause both tension if people perceive that as being unfair, but also it can lead to situations where one gets subsumed by the other. That’s also not really what you want to be doing.

And then the third strategy that I’ve seen to be really important issetting up good processes to support something like innovation, or data, or any of these things that you’re aspiring to do. But it’s also very important to demonstrate what is going on. There’s a certain transparency in seeing what’s happening, but even more importantly, running projects or actually testing them out, so that people can learn from what’s happening. Oftentimes, processes work well in theory and they don’t actually work well in practice. But what I’ve seen work quite well, for example, is helping companies to develop capabilities in what it is they’re trying to do, and then also, in parallel, running a project which allows them to test those out. So in a sense, you’re creating a prototyping machine within an organization, which can make it much more clear and much more transparent to folks who may not be involved, why this is worth doing, the fact that there’s actually momentum and emphasis behind it. So these things can be enormously useful, rather than just saying the word and then running out the door and assuming that what you leave behind is going to then follow this very abstract notion of what it is that you proposed.

Brooke: Right. So there’s a lot in there, let’s start unpacking that. And I want to really unpack it through this lens of behavioral design. So one of the first things you mentioned is starting to get some clarity, really early on, regarding what success would look like and how you would measure it. How you would recognize it if it were actually happening. So that’s something where people coming from a behavioral background who already have that type of thinking, that fluency comes naturally to them when asked what the markers would be. What kind of data would I be collecting in order to see whether it’s happening? That’s something where the behavioral design aspect, the behavioral science aspect, can help to shrink that gap or keep it from opening too much. From there, there was also talk about incentives. Are you ready to give someone a bonus for this? Are you ready to pay for it? So that’s about the level of commitment. But then a deeper question is, why would you pay for it? Why would you pay somebody to innovate? If you can’t answer that question, that’s really telling about the depth of understanding that you have achieved and the lengths that you still have to go to in order to understand why it is that your organization is innovating, why it is that you should be innovating. Sorry, you want to jump in?

Ruth: Just to build on that a little bit. We know as a field that present tense things are concrete, they’re understandable, they’re comfortable, not just status quo bias, but we know that there are so many things that keep present tense things present, and functional. And yes, I think as you’re talking about it, I think part of the challenge too where behavioral science or behavioral design would also be quite useful, is connecting the dots in some ways, being able to project and recognize, not just innovation for innovation’s sake, but future value, and what it is that you’re trying to do. Recognizing in yourself,  placing bets for the future that may be contrary to or even in conflict with present tense value or present tense motivations, etc. So that’s, I think, yet another dimension of what makes some of these things tricky, with any of the technologies. These far out big shots that you’re talking about. There’s a tension between what we feel we should do, but then also the level of risk that we’re willing to embrace. And part of that absolutely is what ordinary people get stressed out by, whether it’s about achieving good health or becoming successful and being financially solvent towards the future. This present tense future tension is really difficult to navigate for any individual and a  company more so, in some ways.

Brooke: Yes. So what we’re getting at there is, some more of the design elements of, why are people not doing this thing already? So you mentioned the concreteness of the present versus the mushyness of the future and not really knowing or not feeling a sense of closeness or of contact with what the future value of the organization might be as the organization evolves. So asking that question of, why are people not doing the thing? Or, why might people not be doing the thing that we want them to do right now? That’s where you start to get into more of the design type of thinking. And then from there that diagnostic, how can we then build processes that would encourage those things? How can we derisk them? So talking about processes to try to promote innovation, for instance. There is a very real tension in a lot of organizations between these innovation projects and the core business that we’re currently in. And the tension can really be set up and framed as innovation is the thing that’s going to eat the lunch of the current core business of the organization. That’s potentially a threat that would get tamped down . you have a skunkworks is not to protect the wider organization from the little innovation unit, it’s to protect the innovation unit from the wider organization whose logic is to come and just crush competition.

The thing is, if you within your organization are not innovating, the sad reality for you is that your competitors in your field are probably innovating. So the question is not, is my lunch in my core business going to be eaten? The question is, is it going to be eaten by me in the future or by somebody else? So framing is a big part of it, but then that risk needs to be properly distributed within the organization. So you talked earlier, in response to my little story about the 5% innovation time threatening core business, you talked about these receptor functions. What happens to an innovation once it’s just breaking out of its shell? How is it getting incubated from just an idea, to a prototype, to a proof of concept, to beginning to scale, and these kinds of things? Innovation isn’t just about this kind of ‘Eureka’ moment. At the beginning, it’s about that whole nurturing process, that flow that follows from those ideas. And so we need to create those receptor capacities within the organization for innovations to actually go somewhere to grow and to take on a life of their own. And those need to be properly incentivized for individuals in order to get them to feed into those things.

Ruth: Yes. I mean, this may sound like a goofy metaphor in an organizational context, but there’s something about cultivating these things. When you think about plants and growing plants, youdon’t just plant something and the next day it’s a full grown tree. That would never occur to you that that’s a normal thing to do. You need to recognize the conditions that you’re setting in the soil, you need to protect it, when it’s still very young and delicate from certain things. You need to make sure that you’re attending to its needs, in the same as something else. But absolutely, it’s not just about protecting that one thing at the expense of others.

So there is that term or that word ‘cultivation. I think it’s actually quite appropriate, because it’s a life cycle, in a sense, that you’re creating. I think there can sometimes be this tension, again, my mixed feelings about the word innovation, but part of it, I think, comes from the fact that it carries a bunch of baggage about the lone genius and about the fact that, “Oh, this idea comes full blown and full sprung, and then suddenly, it’s launched into the world and is a perfect thing.” And I think, honestly, like AI and machine learning suffer from some of that same sensibility where there’s this presumption of it as this idealized technology and what it’s going to do. And none of those things are true. Innovation, AI, they all are good at certain things, not great at others, and some of it, again, I think is aligning and level setting on what it is that we’re actually trying to achieve.

What are the pros and cons? In some ways … yes, aiming for innovation or being too innovative can also be an issueWe’ve seen how things like social media have taken on a life of their own, for example, and yielded some really negative effects. Innovative? Absolutely. But I would argue there are some really bad things that come out of unchecked innovation. So I think it’s always this balance of, what we can do and what we shouldn’t do, and knowing that things like regulations tend to follow after the damage has been done.

Brooke: Yes, there are many horses who have escaped from many barns, and subsequently, the doors have been closed. Right?

Ruth: Exactly. Exactly. And now it’s a little too late.

Brooke: Yes, yes, that’s right. So it’s interesting. It sounds like one of the themes that’s coming out of this is that the organizations who will be best positioned to capitalize on these fads to actually derive some value or create some value out of something like innovation, out of something like synergy, out of something like big data or AI. They’re the organizations that are the ones that are well-led. There are the organizations where there’s a clarity of vision about how the organization itself creates value, what value it creates, for whom, and also this longitudinal view of understanding what value we are creating today, what value we intend to create tomorrow, and what values we’re hedging bets on with these multiple innovations for 10, 20, 50 years from now.

Ruth: It’s interesting that the word ‘value’ and the word ‘values’ are obviously the same, and yet very different, in many ways. Because creating organizational value is obviously what companies are generally set up to do, that’s often a raison d’être. Why are you going to be in business if you’re not going to generate value of some kind? And what can sometimes be intention is how that value that you’re generating as an output of your company also then matches or aligns with values that are out in the world. Because actually, in some ways, what you’re also touching on is … I think there’s been a lot more questioning, certainly in the design world, but I think equally in the behavioral science world, about who are we designing for? Even, who does the designing? When we think, obviously, libertarian paternalism, which is not nearly as catchy as nudging, was a common term or one of the contending terms, and it’s got paternalism right squarely in the middle there. So on the one hand there’s this  recognition of who’s doing the designing, who’s in charge, whether it’s an organization or a smaller entity, but also, what are the implications of the fact that you’re putting things out into the world, whether that’s a public policy, whether it’s a product or offering, whether it’s more of a nudge to make sure that you eat well and stay healthy.

So this notion of how to  generate value, it’s interesting to me. ecause design has been grappling very strongly with this idea of how do you include the people you’re designing for so they’re not just an audience or a consumer, but they’re actually helping you to define what it is that you are creating and how you derive value. And I see behavioral science in some ways, not just because of the paternalism label, but you hear increasingly about things like self-nudging, or there’s a notion of nudge plus, for example, how do we think about participatory behavioral design? So seeing that in the public and more public policy versions of behavioral science, what you’re describing, and as you’re talking, what’s occurring to me actually is, how do we get some of that into organizational contexts as well, and recognizing that there’s value to be created, but also values to be disseminated? So that goes down a whole other ethical dimension, but one I think that the field is absolutely starting to grapple with in a big way these days.

Brooke: Yes. Yes, I agree. And I think that the direction that I had been thinking that this last string of the conversation might take is around how behavioral design can improve leadership. So there’s this old saying, which I’m probably going to butcher –  it’s easier to turn a … what is it? “It’s easier to turn a pro-lifer into a politician than a politician into a pro-lifer” Is it easier to turn a behavioral designer into a corporate leader than to turn a corporate leader into a behavioral designer? So I had been thinking of looking upwards to how this work that we’re doing in behavioral design can help to support better leadership. What you’ve just been discussing is more looking in the opposite direction, looking wider and more into the user base, those for whom we create value, but maybe actually, the fact that both of those perspectives are equally viable and equally useful and helpful to explore, is something really revelatory about corporate leadership itself, that actually what’s often lacking is contact between the cerebral function at the top of the org chart in an organization, and its extended nervous system, its motor functions, and all these kinds of things. If you have a whole bunch of, I don’t know, let’s, for the sake of argument, say a whole bunch of old white male corporate leaders who locked themselves in a room…

Ruth: Just for fun.

Brooke: They could have been anybody, but let’s just choose that group, right? If the vision of corporate leadership is for people with often very similar backgrounds to put themselves in Conclave with a bunch of whiteboards and markers and to have food delivered until a corporate strategy emerges, and that they’re not being receptive to signals within their organization and signals from the external world, at least, at the very least, from their consumers, from their end users that have to travel through the organization itself in order to reach the leadership. If that leadership team is not responsive to those signals, then the quality of the strategy that emerges is going to be much, much weaker.

So maybe the role for behavioral design here is not so much just about infiltrating those leadership discussions, but it’s really to position itself as a very, very powerful conduit for signals to be passed from what it is that you’re hearing within the market, what it is that you’re hearing within your organization itself, from frontline employees, for example; and having that information find its way to the leadership team, through the kinds of information gathering, both qualitative and quantitative, that the behavioral design involves, and also to then take the strategic reflections from the leadership group and concretize them in such a way that they actually are concrete and tangible for people working at the frontline who need to implement them. So then potential barriers for frontline employees, as well as for consumers, have been identified and moved out of the way and it’s even possible for them to enact the behaviors that the leadership group is hoping to see. This kind of thing.

Ruth: So that is prompting a couple of things and I’ll try to keep this constrained because I think you’re right.  There’s no shortage, I think, of recognition that the decision making biases that we all have,get, in some ways, concentrated when we move up, because we are reflecting our own success. And the things that worked for us become this guiding light and the way that everyone should operate. There are all sorts of other dynamics, of course. Like if you’re the big cheese in the room, that people are going to tend to agree with you. So absolutely, there’s a certain amount of both privilege and power that comes with moving up the food chain, if you will, in an organization.There’s also that self reinforcing tendency to believe what worked before. You’ve been rewarded for it in the past and it takes a lot to unhinge that and to be willing to accept guidance from other folks. So that’s one instance of it. It’s reminding me, what you’re just talking about, of a really good specific story where I was working. This was a number of years ago. It was for a healthcare company and they were very firmly centered in trying to increase consumer experience. So very human-centered and trying to pivot from just being based on operations, to really genuinely wanting to design for people. Of course, they were also business, so they weren’t neglecting that part of it, but it was important to them that they be consumer and human-facing. So we did a bunch of work for them and we helped them to harness these ideas about what they could do in terms of products in the marketplace and offerings.

And that all was wonderful. It was wonderfully successful. But there are two particular pieces of it that strike me even more. So there’s the success story of this project, but the two data points were true, even more powerful. One is that we actually took the C-suite and a bunch of senior leaders on user research trips, so they actually saw who their customers were. And let me tell you, that flipped a switch from thinking of people as a segment or as a line item, to actually seeing Henry, who’s sitting at his living room table, who can’t get up to get his oxygen on the other side of the room. I had a COO who, months later, would remember me and would be like, “We met in Henry’s living room.” This was a very … This was not quantitative data that changed his mind. It was that very human experience. So that’s one thing. But yes, that humanization of who you’re serving makes quite a difference.

The other aspect though, which maybe comes full circle to our earlier conversation, is that no matter how much you want to innovate or be good to your customers, etc., it also impacts how you organize for your internal folks. So in this case, for example, being human centered to your customers also meant that you needed to reconfigure how your call center worked, because everything that they were incentivized to do, which was like resolving calls on the first call no matter what, and getting people off the phone quickly, were diametrically opposed to all the principles that we had given them in terms of how to build good relationships and how people feel. That perception that you were being taken care of mattered so much more than shaving a minute off of a phone call. That did not matter to people. What mattered is that they felt taken care of.

So yes, I think it is making sure that leaders are recognized, and recognized as being decision makers that can be supported in a more diverse way. But I think you’re right, that looking up and down the ladder within an organization, is important. But looking outside the organization as well. It’s not just a unidirectional or a specific center of gravity. So all of these components, individuals work together.

Brooke: So what’s the most valuable step that someone listening at home who’s just like, “Oh, my gosh, all of this is so what I needed to hear today! I want to start tomorrow morning to work in the direction of bringing this to life in my organization.” What’s the most valuable first step they can take?

Ruth: I think part of it is, maybe first and foremost, and this sounds so obvious, but we talked about it earlier. Recognizing where what you say and what you do, are  mismatched. That is a starting point that I think many people in many organizations just really, really overlook. And again, it sounds very obvious until you start to realize that those two things are often not aligned and not in sync. So that absolutely, I think, is a starting point. I think another thing that has, again, been coming up in many conversations I’m part of both from the design world, but also the strategy world, is recognizing the diversity of voices that you listen to. Who is it that you ask for opinions? Looking around your organization, who is there and who gets rewarded for doing things, and who gets rewarded for potential versus proving their worth?

There are all sorts of ways in which behavioral science helps,, for example, from a hiring perspective, about bringing and starting to bring people in. But when you have an organization, it’s a much longer term endeavor. And what is a little bit less baked into, I think, how behavioral science and organizations are working together right now is recognizing, for example, that it’s not just about moments of hiring or performance management, when you can gauge and look at behavior discreetly, but it’s looking at, those in between moments. What are all those conversations that are happening just on an everyday regular basis, that can be helping people to get out of their own way and to be genuinely thinking more broadly about who they are talking to, what opinions are being heard a that implies, both organizationally, but also for our role as an organization in the broader spectrum. So I think those are two things that I would start with, definitions and standards. What are you actually trying to do and does it match? And then, who are you listening to, who are you bringing into conversations, and widening that aperture as much as you can.

Brooke: Yes. One thing I would tag on to that standards and definitions piece is, how would you recognize it? Just really trying to get concrete.

Ruth: Yes. Yes, there was some … oh, gosh, I can’t remember his name. There was a consultant I knew many years ago and his version of that was not just saying, “Oh, we want to change….”, or “Oh, culture, this that…”. But what does it look like and what does it sound like, and literally forcing people to write down. When you’re talking about trust, what are those pieces of evidence in the world that you’re living in that say trust, and literally what are the types of things that people say, what do they do? Yes, you go from something very abstract to like, “No, let’s actually define this.” Let’s take the time to actually put it down so we have a way to agree on these things.

Brooke: Yes, that’s great. Ruth, thank you so much for this. This has been such a wide ranging, but also concrete conversation about what the organizational ills of the early 21st century are, and how behavioral design can help us to address them.

Ruth: And we solved it in an hour!

Brooke: Yes. Yes. With like three minutes left. I mean, we got this in the bag.

Ruth: Yes, was a delight.

Brooke: Thanks very much.

Ruth: It was a real pleasure, and yes, it’s exciting, I think, to connect these worlds because I think too often we stay in our swim lane. Strategists stay in strategy, behavioral scientists do behavioral science, designers stay over there. I am a firm believer, speaking of diverse and diverse voices, you learn the most from people who think differently from you. So yes, it’s been great. It was really valuable.

Brooke: For those people who hung on to the very last minute of the conversation, that’s the extra bonus piece of advice. Go and eat in the cafeteria where all the people who don’t work in your department eat. Ruth thanks very much for joining us.

Ruth: It was a pleasure.

Brooke: We hope to chat soon.

Ruth: It was a pleasure. No, that was great. Nice to talk.

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About the Guest

Ruth Schmidt

Ruth Schmidt

Ruth Schmidt is an Associate Professor at the Institute of Design (ID) at Chicago’s Illinois Institute of Technology, where she focuses on the intersection of behavioral economics and humanity-centered design (HCD) by combining strategic design methods and an understanding of latent human needs with behavioral insights to inform solutions concerning human judgment, decision-making, and behavior. Prior to this role, she was a senior leader at Doblin, an innovation consultancy within Deloitte, where she led the development of applied behavioral and design methodologies to help clients develop innovation solutions and embed innovation processes more effectively within their organizations across health care, financial services, education, and civic domains. Ruth holds a BA in Art-Semiotics from Brown University and a Masters of Design from the Institute of Design.

About the Interviewer

Brooke Struck portrait

Dr. Brooke Struck

Dr. Brooke Struck is the Research Director at The Decision Lab. He is an internationally recognized voice in applied behavioural science, representing TDL’s work in outlets such as Forbes, Vox, Huffington Post and Bloomberg, as well as Canadian venues such as the Globe & Mail, CBC and Global Media. Dr. Struck hosts TDL’s podcast “The Decision Corner” and speaks regularly to practicing professionals in industries from finance to health & wellbeing to tech & AI.

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