Nudging organizational visions into reality with Katie Rice

PodcastFebruary 28, 2022

Translating a vision into action is very behavioral. It's what we actually do that brings that vision to life and it has direct impact on performance. It's measurable.

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In this episode, Brooke is joined by Katie Rice, Lead Knowledge Analyst at BCG. Together, they discuss the how behavioral science can be applied to change management. In a time of serious global and organizational change, effective behavioral interventions can help prepare a company’s culture for this changing world, as well as manifest leadership's visions more efficiently. What are these interventions and how do they work?

Topics discussed include:

  • Why most organizations are “swimming against the current” when it comes to behavioral change
  • Why we should “budget” behavioral change within our organizations… and the dangerous results if we don’t
  • The strengths and limitations of communication techniques when translating your message into action
  • Simple PowerPoint nudges that increase behavioral transformation by 11%
  • How a technique from Weight Watchers is being used to improve industry leaders’ behaviors
  • Is behavioral science just strategy in disguise? Or vice-versa?
  • The hidden connections between an organization's purpose and creating behavioral change

The conversation continues

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Sneak Peek

On the difficulties communicating organization’s purpose:

“When you think about purpose and vision, it’s a question of “who are we”. What are we trying to do in the world? What is our north star? Where are we going? What's our direction? What's our biggest steering on the ship? Where are we headed? That can be really hard for a leader to translate. They may have something that they feel is a very strong message, but then actually putting that into action can be really challenging.” 

On the importance of context why trying to change behavior:

“When you don't have the right context and you're asking people to change behavior, you're asking them to swim against the current. It's going to be really hard for them to change their behavior. But if you change the context so that it's supportive of the behavior you want to see, it makes it logical and then they're swimming with the current.”

On co-creating behavioral change with employees:

“Even if they're not, like you said, behavioral practitioners who can tell you what exactly should be nudged and when, it's more so that you are involving them that sends the message. It sets the tone, and also provides really rich data so that you can do a better job of implementing what you need to do and ultimately activate those behaviors.”

On focused behavioral change: 

“If you're asking for massive behavior change, on a 10 to 20 behavior change level, it's going to get very confusing and make people feel like maybe they're not the right person.”

On starting with “why”:

“What I would argue is, even though you're focused on the end of the transformation and making sure behaviors stick, you actually need to start at the beginning: at the vision. Start there to understand what are the behaviors that you want to see. So that, when you get to the point where you've implemented what you needed to implement, where you've transitioned the organization, where the new CEO is onboard, where the merger has already happened, you already know what you want to do to help make the change sustainable and make sure that people are headed in the same direction.”


Brooke Struck: 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 Katie Rice, a Lead Knowledge Analyst at BCG. She focuses on using behavioral insights to drive change management initiatives within their client organizations. In today's episode, we'll be talking about the rudders that steer big ships: how organizations try to change, why they struggle, and what actually works. Katie, thanks for joining us.

Katie Rice: Yeah, happy to be here, Brooke.

Brooke Struck: Let's dive right in. What are the biggest challenges during an organizational transformation? For example, a merger and acquisition, or a new CEO coming in? Or even just a strategic pivot?

Katie Rice: I think there's really two big challenges that we're facing today. One is prioritizing change. There is so much impacting organizations today, whether it's AI, or sustainability related to climate, or the workforce, or future of work. Or even COVID. There's just a lot being thrown at organizations on a daily, monthly, yearly basis. It's hard to know what to focus on.

Then somewhat related to that is also, when you know it's the right time to change, having a clear vision or purpose that you can translate into something that's understandable by employees, so they can then follow up with the right actions to support that vision or purpose. Those, I think, are some of the biggest challenges that we're seeing today.

Brooke Struck: It sounds like you're talking about a cascade of things here. The first is that, there are lots of pressures out there, in terms of a changing marketplace and a changing world. It's difficult to know, of those pressures, how should we be prioritizing which ones require a big response? Which ones require a littler response? Which ones need to be responded to extremely rapidly? Which need a big response, but that can actually be stretched out over time?

That first prioritization then, taking the inward perspective, is: what is our response going to look like? How do we get a coherent vision of what it is that we're going to do, in order to position ourselves effectively, in response to these pressures? Then, from that creation of a clear vision, then there's the question of "Well, what does that mean in practice? What would we need to do, in order to bring that vision to life?" Finally, how do we actually push those actions and the clarity of that vision, into the organization so that it gets done?

Katie Rice: Yes, or how do you get people to latch onto that vision or purpose, so that they're, rather than it being pushed on them, they feel the drive and the need to move it forward as well. When you think about purpose and vision, it’s a question of “who are we”? What are we trying to do in the world? What is our north star? Then, really also, where are we going? What's our direction? What's our biggest steering on the ship, to use your analogy. Where are we headed? That can be really hard for a leader to translate. They may have something that they feel is a very strong message. But then actually putting that into action can be really challenging.

Brooke Struck: Can you talk us through some practical examples? What kind of message might a leader come up with? Then, what barriers might they face, when in trying to socialize that within the organization, and get it taken onboard? Not as this top-down push, but as something that we identify with, and galvanize around as an organization?

Katie Rice: Yeah, we've worked with several organizations that have experienced this kind of challenge. In one scenario, you might be looking at a new CEO, or a new organization or function lead, who is trying to set a new path: "Here's where I want to go. Here's where I see us going." Maybe their view of the island that they're headed to on their ship is exactly clear to them, and may even be clear to their leadership team. But they need some really core messaging, to help deliver that to employees, who maybe are not in the conversations on the day to day basis, that this new leader is in.

One example could be wanting to see a caring for others. That's a really valuable message. That's something that says the leader really cares for their people. But what does that actually mean in action? When you see that, it can mean so many different things. Does that mean everybody hugs each other? In this day and age, probably not. But it could be a number of things.

In situations like this, we've seen it translate into something like trying to prevent burnout. Being really focused on the person as a whole, instead of just the person in their work life. We might see getting really specific in those behaviors, to say, "Okay, well what does burnout mean in the day to day? When we see it, what does that look like?" That's something that our team has helped with, is to getting really specific on what those behaviors are, and helping translate that vision into the specific behaviors that you want to see. Then, you can drive towards the certain set of actions.

Brooke Struck: Right, so you're already starting to allude to this, but I'd like to really give you an opportunity now to pull it wide open. How does a behavioral science practitioner view these challenges, and what does this behavioral lens offer us, that traditional approaches might miss?

Katie Rice: Right. Yeah, so I think a behavioral science practitioner would view this, not as a challenge, but as a great opportunity. This is a real chance to bring behavioral science into the corporate world, which some organizations do really well, and some haven't even started thinking about. Translating a vision into action is often very behavioral. It's what we actually do, that brings that vision to life, and it has direct impact on performance. It's measurable. It's something that you can actually see, and measure, and know if it's happening, or know the downstream impacts with performance.

There's, I think, a real opportunity on the behavioral science side, to bring that to life. Then, to answer your question around, what would we be doing, what's different that we'd be bringing to the table? It's that level of specificity, translated into actual interventions. Rather than something fluffy, it's like, "Let's have a conversation. Let's figure out something. Then we'll communicate it, and everyone will know, and therefore they'll do it.” We know from behavioral science, this is not true. That even if you communicate it, some well-intentioned people may start acting a different way. Others may completely ignore it, and some may have never read the email that you sent. 

What we suggest doing is taking a look at the behaviors that you want to see, and understanding if the current context of the organization supports that. Is the context going to allow for people to do the things that you would like them to do? Once you reach that specificity, you can understand if the context is making a behavior not seem logical. Then, you can make adjustments.

Imagine something like a call center, for example, moving from a quantitative culture to a qualitative culture, where you're focused more on the quality of the calls, rather than how many. But if your performance management system is set up so that your metrics are aligned to the quantity of calls, well then you're not actually making the behavior logical, of focusing on the quality of the calls logical.

On the flip side, we also know that activating behavior change is also challenging. This is why we use what we call our swim analogy. That's when you don't have the right context, and you're asking people to change behavior, you're asking them to swim against the current. It's going to be really hard for them to change their behavior. But, if you change the context, so that it's supportive of the behavior you want to see, it makes it logical and, then they're swimming with the current.

But it may be really hard to still get to that behavior change, and so you need to activate that behavior, through nudging, or through choice architecture and design, to kickstart the behavior, so that you can start to see it in action.

Brooke Struck: Let's go back to the cascade we talked about. There's so much richness in there, I want to start pinning it onto specific elements in the transformation journey. In terms of what pressures to respond to, as we were discussing it earlier, the big challenge is around prioritization.

I can easily imagine a behavioral angle to that, where part of what it is that we're helping leadership to decide about is, how seriously should we be taking various pressures? How can we make sure that we are getting an objective sense of the risks represented by various things, and that we're not discounting certain risks? That we're not going out and seeing information in a confirmation-biased way? Like, that we've already decided that this is not going to be a big risk, so we're going to go out and find all the information to make sure that we can build that business case? So one there.

Then, in terms of the new direction, so figuring out how it is that we're going to respond, or where we want to put that destination or that north star, as you put it. Where does the behavioral element come in there? Is there a special sauce that we have to deliver, at that part of the cascade?

Katie Rice: In the definition area of vision and purpose?

Brooke Struck: Yeah.

Katie Rice: Yes. Normally, on the BCG side, we work with some of our experts, around articulating the vision in a creative way. Working with luminaries to understand what the purpose should be, and how we can be thoughtful about how it's crafted. Then, in that translation, there's also a behavioral component, which is, how do we derive principles from those that can drive behavior change? How is it something that we can translate into actual behaviors?

So there's certainly a behavioral element in that. Although we, like I said, at BCG we leverage some of our experts on our side to work on that creative component. I wish I was as creative as some of these people. But certainly, I think once we get to that idea, then we can help craft that specificity.

SIt's something that we like to bring to the table, once that vision is clear, is that articulation of the specific behaviors. At BCG, we call this the video test:. iIf you were to walk in a room and see this behavior, what would it actually look like? That level of specificity can be really hard for leaders to get to.

Brooke Struck: Yeah, and that strikes me as, really, one of the drivers of value of this behavioral perspective here. This idea that, once you get the right ideas and concepts in your mind, then naturally your behavior will follow. That's just an idea that behavioral scientists know to avoid from the beginning, right?

If we think about that in the context of strategy, the idea is that, if we just move it into this other realm of discourse, the parallel idea there would be "Well, if you have the right strategy, it implements itself." OIt's, once you've gone through that creative work of figuring out the really perfect solution to this thing, the perfect solution will just implement itself. You don't need to think any further than that, about how to make it happen. Of course, behavioral practitioners will just react so vitriolically to that kind of thing. It's like, "No no no, you don't change minds first, and then behaviors will just naturally follow!."

Katie Rice: Right, and I think, so my background is in change management. My traditional view has always been communicate, communicate, communicate. You should say something nine times, otherwise it won't stick. While I do think communication is very valuable, and an incredibly important component, it's simply education. What we know from the behavioral science, from the rational mind, is that we don't receive all information. We don't process everything that we hear. Sometimes we don't even use it to help us make decisions.

While helpful, it's certainly not the only lever. When we think about behavior change and transformations, which, so much of transformations are now behavioral, you really do have to consider these other components. So both context, and also activating behavior change through nudging, are going to become really critical, in order to see behavior change to support those visions.

Brooke Struck: That's really helpful. That, I think, shines a light on somewhere else where we can do some valuable work, in distinguishing the behavioral approach. The first distinction that we were working on a moment ago is this highly rationalist, idealized perspective. Where if the idea is good enough, you're done. The other perspective, on the other side is, "This is actually more a communications problem than an ideas challenge." You just need to get people to know what the problem is, and you need to tell them what you want.

What is it that the behavioral perspective allows us to gain, over and above just that communications perspective of, the message needs to be clear, and hammered away at nine times, not one, kind of thing?

Katie Rice: Right. Well, what we know is that, from our BCG transformation check, that when you embed behavior change by aligning organizational context levers to reinforce target behaviors, and you nudge those key value driving behaviors, you're looking at 112% higher success rate in transformations. There's data that tells us that, when an organization pulls those context levers, and they activate the behavior with nudging, that you're actually seeing a much higher success in transformations themselves.

I think that's entirely attributable to seeing the behaviors in action. Which, as I mentioned before, it leads downstream to performance. You actually can see the performance changes, once the behaviors start to shift.

Brooke Struck: Let's talk now about shifting those behaviors. What kind of behaviorally informed solutions show promise, in addressing the kinds of challenges we've just been discussing?

Katie Rice: Yeah, one thing about nudging, that you probably hear from all the practitioners that you speak with, is that they can be really simple solutions, and are probably something pretty logical that you could leverage easily. In our experience, for organizations that are dealing with, let's take our burnout example: When you try to get specific around that behavior, "We know we want to address burnout," you can do things pretty simply, like rules of thumb.

Sending out a note to say, "Hey, we now suggest that, if you're going to be sending an email on Friday, that you should add in the title of your email, 'For Monday.' Or you should say, 'Not priority.'" Those are pretty simple nudges, that, once leadership starts to use it, you see that cascade throughout the organization.

Or you could use digital nudges, like popups. This is actually something that we've used at BCG. That when you send an email outside of someone's hours of work, that you get a notification that says, "Do you really want to send this email? Did you know it's outside of this person's working hours?" 

That alerts you to two things: One, you're doing something that's asking someone to work outside of the time period that they should be working. Two, it helps you to know that it's a value that the organization has. That it's important to consider someone's work-life balance, and therefore it helps to boost morale, and then also helps to reduce the amount of workload that's happening on the weekends.

Brooke Struck: Let's talk about context shifting there. There are two interventions that you just talked about, that have an influence on context. The first is leadership behavior, and the second is automatic prompts, or little nudges. How is it that those actually apply their force, to bring about changes in the context?

Katie Rice: The context itself is actually something different. These would be the nudges that you would use to activate that behavior change. When I talk about context, I'm talking about things like decision rights, like role charters, the organizational structure, and the performance management system. It's the metrics that you use.

In this case, although you don't always have to use context levers, sometimes they are in place already, and you just still need to activate that behavior change. But in these kinds of situations, you might do something like measuring people's response to work-life balance in a survey, for example. Or you might use a tool to understand collaboration and networking behavior, and see if people are actually working on off hours. Then notify the leadership team.

You could use data to help you understand what's happening in the organization, and set that context in a way of notification, and value driving. Or you could use things like metrics. Like, "So and so, it seems like your team has a high rate of burnout, or retention risk. This is something that we want to focus on." Using those data components, or the metrics, to help drive action sets that context.

Brooke Struck: Have you seen any nudges that seem particularly powerful and robust across contexts? That are quite portable? That someone listening to the show, who's looking for something to just try out, to get the wheel turning a little bit? Is there anything that you've seen, that you think really does work?

Katie Rice: Yeah, so two things that I think are really powerful. One is using a nudge engine: Generating an engine that can be attached to any application that creates a set of personalized popups. You could use it for things like a Salesforce program that attaches popups to generate the right kind of thinking in the right moment. Or I've seen it also used in leadership apps. Things that are helping to drive behavioral change. You might have an application, or an engine attached to it, to help generate that thinking, in terms of the behaviors that you want to see.

The other ones that I've seen, that are really powerful, and also very simple, are PowerPoint templates. They're super easy to use. They set that right chain of conversation, and they make it something that happens regularly. We've seen using things like a context slide at the beginning of a conversation, to make sure that you're talking about context of the conversation before everything else happens, and a slide at the end that says, "Did you get the context that you needed?" Or others like safety culture, adding in a slide at the beginning of a PowerPoint template, that means that every time you have a conversation with your team, you talk about safety, and you provide a new example. That becomes embedded in their ways of working. That could be something really simple.

Brooke Struck: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Let's take some of those instances, and once again try to look at distilling the behavioral essence of this. Why is this something that someone, in communications for instance, is unlikely to reach for? As opposed to a behavioral practitioner, who goes directly for those kinds of solutions?

Katie Rice: Well, a PowerPoint template is not necessarily a traditional communication mechanism. You think about your communication mechanisms like Slack channels, or like emails, newsletters, video announcements, town halls. Those are what you're typically going to see. It's not something that's embedded in the day to day and I think that's the difference. The more you can find something that's going to be used on a ready basis, then you can leverage it. That helps to nudge behavior change.

I would say everyone who's in the communication world should consider these outlets. Communication doesn't need to be limited to the traditional forums. There are other ways to communicate. Another recent application of nudging that we've seen is through splash screens on your computer and, using those to create salience around particular topics. That's a way to either communicate/nudge something that's important to the organization. But also, not something traditionally used.

Brooke Struck: Let's dig into the success stories of this. There were a few nudges that you mentioned, that you've seen have been quite regularly powerful across different contexts. They seem to be quite portable. What are the numbers on that? How impactful are these nudges? What orders of magnitude are we talking about here?

Katie Rice: Yeah, so when we're looking at things like PowerPoint slides to set context, something like that, that's so simple, it actually can lead to an 11% increase in behavior change. Or other things that we've seen, that have been incredibly beneficial. Although I don't have specific numbers around it, anecdotally, we've heard really good anecdotes around it.

We use leader action plans to help encourage leader behaviors. That's taking what you traditionally see in the Weight Watchers type context, to help get people to change their exercise behavior. You can use it to help get leaders also to change their behaviors. We have them create an action plan. Then they socialize it. They have an accountability partner. Then there's also consequences associated with it.

What we see is, with that, you actually see an 80% increase in behavior change. It's just internalizing it. It gives the ability for a leader to pause, and think about the behaviors that they want to see. Then you compound that with things like a context slide in a PowerPoint deck, and you're looking at some really solid behavior change.

Brooke Struck: It sounds like what you're talking about here is not a million little tips and tricks around the margins, that add up to something cumulatively powerful. It's two, three, maybe four core elements that you identify in a given organization, in a given situation, that really are able to pull a massive amount of weight. From the way that you're describing it, that's what I hear. Does that resonate with your experience? Or am I missing something there?

Katie Rice: No, I think that's right. I think that's right. You really don't have to do a lot, to help activate that behavior change. Once the behavior's logical, because of the context, if you're working against culture, if you're working against context, then it's really hard to activate the behaviors that you want to see. Like I said, you're swimming upstream.

But if the behavior is logical, and the context is set in the right way, then there's not a whole lot that you have to do, in order to activate those behaviors. There's a number of situations that we've experienced, where something super simple can be pretty impactful, like the context slide.

Or in other situations, we've actually taken on this for ourselves. In BCG, we wanted our leadership team to start re-posting content. Something very logical, right? They should be doing it. Someone who's their counterpart posts something really awesome on LinkedIn, and they should be sharing it. It's good for them. It's good for our group. It's good for the whole organization, and yet, it wasn't happening. It's also very easy to do. All they do is click one time and then it re-shares. But they weren't doing it.

What we did is a simple calendar reminder. It costs nothing. A little bit of my time, actually, to get it posted. We just posted the calendar reminders, and put in the link to the material that needed to get posted. What we saw was that, for the leaders who were not sharing at all, it actually didn't do very much. For leaders who were sharing already quite a lot, they were already sharing a lot, so not a big deal. But for those leaders in the middle, who were sharing every once in a while, it was a dramatic increase. I think something like four times what they had been sharing before.

While that's small, think about that exponentially, if you're looking to grow a marketing group, or grow in sharing capability. That's something really simple, that costs nothing, that's pretty easy to implement, and yet drives a lot of value.

Brooke Struck: Yeah, that resonates with certainly anecdotal stuff that I've heard and experienced in the past around organizational change, but also around education. That you've got that 10% of keeners and early adopters at the top.

If we think about this in an education context, it's basically whatever you're doing in front of the class. In terms of handing out homework, and this kind of thing, that 10% is going to learn no matter what you do. Then at the bottom end, you've similarly got that 10% that has just decided they are not going to engage with this content. Once again, it doesn't really matter what you do. That's just such a recalcitrant group to try to break into.

But then there's that massive middle, and that's where the entire game plays out. My rule of thumb for that is, it's reasonable to expect that you probably have 10% at the top and 10% at the bottom. The whole battle takes place over that 80% in the middle, and that's massive.

Katie Rice: It is, it is, and something as simple as a calendar reminder can make that incredible shift. To your point before, it doesn't actually take a lot to activate the behavior change. Even measuring behavior says something about the behavior that you want to see. Ideally, you're not using something like a survey. But if you are, then the fact that you're sending out a survey means that you care. It's something as simple as, "We understand this is important, and we want to know how you feel about it."

I think, in communications language, that you're listening to the people, your employees, the leadership team, and then showing them that something matters. But it can also be a nudge to understand that, if you're sending it on a regular basis, this is something that means a lot to the organization.

Brooke Struck: Mm-hmm (affirmative), that seems to be something that, maybe when we think about change management, it's not immediately top of mind. In fact, even the way that we were articulating that cascade earlier misses this later piece. That even after identifying the pressure, or setting a new direction, figuring out how to move in that new direction and then putting that into action. After that whole cascade, there's sustaining the thing as well. Actually maintaining the direction once you're on course.

This really is about the point you were just discussing, which is demonstrating ongoing engagement about these things. That you're continuing to listen, and this sort of thing. Are there some behavioral strategies that you've seen that are really effective, in terms of that messaging piece, to keep the priorities top of mind?

Katie Rice: Yes. Most of what we do, in the effort of behavioral change, is happening in an effort to sustain what we want to see. What I would argue is, even though you're focused on the end of the transformation, and making sure behaviors stick, you actually need to start at the beginning. At the vision. Start there to understand, what are the behaviors that you want to see, so that when you get to the point where you've implemented what you needed to implement, where you've transitioned the org, where the new CEO is onboard, where the merger has already happened, you already know what you want to do, to help make the change sustainable, and make sure that people are headed in the same direction. That's aligning your communications along the same conversation. Setting the groundwork and learning. I think that it’s incredibly valuable, is not thinking about behavior change as a last-minute thing. It's important to think about at the beginning.

Brooke Struck: Are these behavioral insights, in a sense, strategy in disguise? If you can't really do strategy without already considering the behavioral implications that are going to come further downstream in that cascade, does the inverse also not apply? Is all behavioral work actually just strategy, at the end of the day?

Katie Rice: I think it's a little bit hidden in the strategy world. I think that's certainly true, and likely should be considered that way. If you consider behaviors in a silo, it's going to continue to be the last priority. But if it's ultimately a part of the strategy of the organization, then that's a nudge in and of itself. It's embedded in the ways of working. You're constantly talking about it, and thinking about it, and therefore activating the behaviors that you want to see. Behavior change is important.

Brooke Struck: Now I want to pivot a little bit, from things that work and things that show promise, to things that intuitively we believe should work, but in fact they are spectacular failures. Are there any that come to mind? What is an old chestnut of wisdom that just hasn't held up in the face of data?

Katie Rice: I think about failures, then first of all, I think you've probably heard this quite a bit from other practitioners. That experimentation is very important. Coming into this with an idea that not everything is going to work, is also pretty important. If you think that what you're doing is going to work the first time, you're probably wrong.

But actually, in a similar scenario, working around newsletters, we were designing some nudges to activate usage of a tool using a newsletter, and testing out different functionality in the newsletter. In terms of popups, or clickbait, or micro incentives, and all these different things. What we quickly realized in this particular situation was, it wasn't the nudges. It was the newsletter. The fact that we were sending a newsletter in the first place was not the right nudge to encourage behavior change.

I'm not saying newsletters can't be effective. But maybe in some situations, they are not. That's something to consider, is that sometimes it's not the nudge. Sometimes, it's the mechanism or what you traditionally thought was the way you wanted to test something.

It's interesting, because in the scenario, working with a client in the Middle East, what we found was, actually the micro incentives, without the newsletter, were more impactful than with the newsletter. Offering updates or Mont Blanc pens was more likely to encourage that behavior change than it was to actually inform anyone.

Brooke Struck: From a behavioral perspective, can you help to diagnose that failure? Is there something that the behavioral perspective allows us to see, about why certain things don't work, that we just struggle to understand without that lens applied?

Katie Rice: I think in this scenario, it would have been helpful to have more data around reading of the newsletter. In this scenario, we didn't actually know if anyone was reading the newsletter in the first place. You could get click rate, but click rate does not mean spending a minute to read a newsletter, keeping it open. That, I think, is a failing. That it would have been helpful to have that data, to know. Then, we could have very quickly scrapped the idea of the newsletter, rather than running 10 experiments to understand what iteration worked best.

Brooke Struck: Yeah. Actually, that gets to a point that we've discussed a number of times, not in this episode, but on this wider podcast, about how much to invest in testing. That when you're doing your really early stage ideation, you don't need these extremely, statistically complex tests, with massive ends and this kind of thing. If you can run 10 tests, with just a handful of people in each one, and each of those 10 is a dismal failure, you have saved yourself a lot of time and, to know you should look somewhere else.

Katie Rice: So true. So true. Also, rather than scrapping the idea that you want to change behavior, or that you want to use nudging to change behavior. Looking at your design itself and saying, "Was this the right design? Should we have considered alternatives?"

Something else that we have done, that I think has been really powerful, is when you are working with an organization, don't assume that you know the answer. Oftentimes they actually have the best idea of what will work in their culture or their context. Coming in with suggestions is all well and good, but you should also listen, and know, given the organizational context, what's the right path forward?

Brooke Struck: Yeah. One of the messages that I've sometimes heard, someone reaches out to me and says, "I want to start using some behavioral insights in my organization. What are some low-hanging fruit? What are some things that I should definitely try?" My answer is generally, unless you take some time to understand the context that you're operating in, you're more or less shooting in the dark.

Now that's not to say that it's not worth experimenting with some things and not worth just trying it out. But acknowledging that the quality of your hypotheses, and by quality I mean the likelihood that they're going to turn out to be true, is going to remain pretty low if you don't understand the context in which you are experimenting.

To your point, the people who work in that organization day in and day out, they may not be great experimentalists. They probably don't understand all that much about behavioral science. But what they do know, which you really, really don't as an outsider coming in, is that deep understanding of context.

Katie Rice: Yes, absolutely, and a deep, deep understanding of what has worked in the past, and what has not. When you think about change management, if you just ask someone in an organization, they can tell you, "Oh yeah, videos don't work well here. No one watches them. Don't use them." That would be something pretty easy to have a conversation with someone with.

That's actually why, from the BCG perspective, we always try to not only talk to leadership about the behaviors they want to see, but also talk to the employees about the barriers to those behaviors. We've, in the past, used tools like Remesh to do online focus groups, so that you can do a focus group of up to 1000 people at one given time, gather a bunch of data, and understand what those behavioral challenges are. That can be really intriguing, especially when you compare it to the leadership’s view and see if there's any difference between the two. Even knowing that there's a gap can bring value.

Brooke Struck: Yeah, for sure. Yeah, we do something we call a behavioral diagnostic, which I gather is probably, in many ways, very similar. It's this fact-finding mission of, before we come up with these grand, sparkling ideas about what's going to change the world, the first is just to understand what that world looks like in the first place. You have to go out there and talk to people, and you have to gather that context. You need to figure out, as you say, what has been tried in the past, that has or has not worked?

One of the things that I've seen often is that, even if we don't know which nudges might be, just the fact-finding mission might not indicate on the face of it which nudges might be effective, or which won't, the mechanisms are often really obvious. Like you said, "Videos don't work here." Or, "We use Slack for this kind of thing," or, "We use email for that kind of thing." If, "Kind of thing X," is what you're looking at, "Don't try to do that by email, because no one does that by email here. That always happens via Slack," is a super, super valuable insight.

Katie Rice: Right. Yeah, I think that's absolutely true. I think there's the added value of even just having a conversation with employees. If I think about the broad view of, approaching a transformation is, including employees in the conversation means that they are co-creating. Even if they're not, like you said, behavioral practitioners , who can apply behavioral science, or tell you what exactly should be nudged and when. It's more so the fact that you are involving them that sets the message. It sets the tone, and also provides really rich data, so that you can do a better job of implementing what you need to do, and ultimately activate those behaviors.

Brooke Struck: All right. Now, let's get very practical here. For leaders who are seeing some change on the horizon, they're staring down the barrel of climate change, and COVID, and cybersecurity threats, and all of the other exciting stuff that the world out there has to throw at us. They're saying, "We have an important pivot to make. We need to figure out how we're going to set a new direction, or which new direction we're going to set, and how we're going to concretize that into certain actions, and then socialize that and message that effectively, and nudge that effectively within our organization?” What's the most valuable thing that they can start doing tomorrow morning, to increase their chances to be ready for change? For their organization to be receptive to change?

Katie Rice: I think it connects a little bit to what we've talked about before. First of all, you don't want to boil the ocean, right? You need to be focused. Having a clear vision, and also, only asking people to change three to four behaviors at a time. If you're asking for massive behavior change on a 10 to 20 behavior change level, it's going to get very confusing, and also make people feel like maybe they're not the right person. When you're making that focused ask, looking at something like three to four behaviors at a time is probably the right answer.

Also, we talked about this as well, but approaching everything with experimentation in mind. Having a culture of experimentation that enables you to try new things, learn from them, opening up to the idea of fast failure and learning, then ultimately finding something that does work.

I think with that also comes measuring behavior, having something in place that allows you to know if a behavior is happening or not. Making sure there's a baseline, and then measuring over time. That can look so different, depending on the situation. But if there is data already available, that measures the performance, or measures the actual behavior itself, that's going to drive the most value.

BCG's philosophy is also that behavioral competence is one of the most important skills of the next 10 years. After picking up a book about nudging, or about behavior change, it can be inspiring to think not only about the change in your own life, in some of these cases, but also in bringing your vision to the organization, and bringing it to them through behavior change.

Brooke Struck: There's one part of what you said, that I want to pick up on here. You had so many valuable things in there. There's one that I want to pick up, just to—

Katie Rice: Threw it all out at you.

Brooke Struck: Yeah, that's right. I just want to crystallize this one, because I think there's a really valuable rule of thumb that we can firm up here. You were saying, "Aim to change three to four behaviors at a time." If we assume, is it safe to assume that in a behavior change cycle, you want to change three or four behaviors over the course of a year? Is that a roughly fair assessment?

Katie Rice: I think a year is probably too long. But it depends on the organization. It may take a lot of effort to see three to four behaviors do enough of a shift to feel like they're part of the day to day on a regular basis. In other organizations, we've seen it happen within three or four weeks. In which case, it feels like it's embedded.

Oftentimes, and Katy Milkman talks about this, but oftentimes a fresh start is a really great time to implement new behaviors. When you're looking at a new organization, or a new CEO, or even just a group of people coming together for the first time, it's a real opportunity to focus on that behavior change. That might speed up the process a little bit.

Brooke Struck: Okay. So this is the kind of rule of thumb that I want to drive towards. Hopefully you can help me to think through, how can we quantify this? If you say, "Focus on three or four behaviors to change per cycle”, how many behavior change cycles should you fit into a year?

Katie Rice: I'm going to give you a typical consulting answer, which is, it depends. I think probably a maximum of four. That would be a lot, I think. But it also, again, depends on the organization. I think you're probably more typically going to see one to two. But, there are those exceptional organizations that are very open, where you might be able to add in more. Or where you have a fresh start at the beginning, that enables you to incorporate something very quickly, and then move on to the next set of behaviors as well.

Brooke Struck: Yeah, okay. Great. I think I'm shaping up something in my mind now with this. If we can expect that you can change three to four behaviors in a cycle, and one to two, maybe a stretch goal three, cycles in a year is reasonable, when you're sitting down to do your strategy, you can now set yourself a budget, and say, "Within my organization, in order to bring about the change that we want to see, I have an annual budget of 10 behaviors that I can change in my organization every year."

That concept of a budget, I think, is so valuable for prioritization. To say, "Okay, well let's just fit these things into the top 10, and everything else is in the backlog", and we can discuss whether this thing in the backlog is important, and we might all agree it's really important, but then the question is, is it more important than anything that we've put into our top 10?

That's such a helpful frame for conversation to get people crystallized around action, so that we don't need to squabble about whether item number 12 on the list is important. We can all agree that it's important. The question is not about whether we should care about it, it's whether it should bump up the list.

Katie Rice: Right, right. Yes, and I think the only thing I would caveat is that it should be tied to the vision for purpose in the organization. It should also be logical. The context should be supportive of it, and ultimately, the culture should be supportive of it as well. I think that's something else to look at, as you consider the 10 behaviors that you identify for the year.

How much effort is it going to take for us to get to that point where we can activate those behaviors? I think that can also help to narrow the scope as well: maybe it's still really important, but we might want to reduce the number so that we can get it right.

Brooke Struck: That's great. Katie, thank you so much for this. This has been such an insightful conversation.

Katie Rice: Yes, absolutely. Really enjoyed it, Brooke. Thank you so much for having me.

Brooke Struck: I hope to chat with you soon.

Katie Rice: Thanks.

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About the Guest

Katie Rice

Katie Rice

Katie Rice is a Lead Knowledge Analyst in the People and Organization Practice at BCG, heading the Change Management in the department. At BCG, Katie's experience has been broadly centered on Organizational Change Management. However, her expertise spans further including Communication Strategy and Execution, Change Readiness Assessments, Change Impact Analysis, Stakeholder Engagement, and Training Vendor Management for major system implementations. Currently, Katie is co-leading a team that is building behavioral frameworks that will help bring sustainable behavioral change and nudging to scale in large organizations. 

Prior to working at BCG, Katie influenced several companies’ change management strategies, including IBM, SunTrust Bank, and Centric Consulting. On the academic front, Katie earned a MSc in Industrial / Organizational Psychology from the University of Central Florida, as well as a BS from the University of Georgia. 

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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