Many books, blogs, and articles have tried to answer the question “How should I set up a behavioral insights team?” It’s an important one. Behavioral science has rapidly grown in popularity, as shown by the more than 300 such units created worldwide by 2020. Organizations want to ensure they are getting value for money. In response, people have offered valuable advice on how to arrange the leadership, funding, and goals of such teams for maximum success.
However, this work has diverted attention from another question: how to integrate behavioral science into an organization’s own processes. For example, as well as trying to ensure that a departmental budget includes provisions for behavioral science, why not use behavioral science to improve how the budget is created? Managers could be anchored to outdated spending assumptions without even realizing.
Take human resources: its leaders profoundly shape what organizations permit and reward. Yet there has been relatively little focus on “behavioral HR.” Recent studies have shown that cognitive biases like decoy effects, framing effects, anchoring, and halo effects can be present in practical decisions such as performance appraisal. They can also be countered: when considering the purchase of email software for HR managers, framing effects—such as saying that 20 percent of users were dissatisfied (versus saying 80 percent were satisfied)—significantly affected intentions to buy. Yet these effects were eliminated if both percentages were shown to the person making the choice.
The overriding message here is to place greater focus on the organizational features that indirectly apply or support behavioral science principles (such as incentives and decision-making processes), rather than just thinking through how the direct and overt use of behavioral science can be promoted in an organization.
If behavioral science is baked into the core structures of the organization, then it will continue to produce benefits, regardless of the leadership’s decorative preferences.
Shifting our energy in this way brings two main benefits: scale and resilience.
Scale: Rather than starting with an intervention and then trying to scale it, we could start by looking at operations or processes already happening at scale and explore how they can be influenced.
Resilience: Operating more implicitly (through organizational processes, rather than through explicit projects) is an approach that is more resilient to potential changes in the demand for “behavioral science” solutions in the future.
Think about it this way: how we’ve historically talked about setting up behavioral science teams is a bit like designating one room in an office building “the nudge room.” Perhaps we’ve redecorated and refurbished it so that more people will go there when they want advice. But if a new CEO comes in and decides they want the room to do something else (like data science), then little will remain.
In contrast, my proposal is more akin to deciding to upgrade the wiring or heating of the building. If behavioral science is baked into the core structures of the organization, perhaps in less prominent ways, then it will continue to produce benefits, regardless of the leadership’s decorative preferences.
This distinction adds a new dimension to the way we talk about behavioral science in organizations, shown in the table below. The vertical axis represents whether behavioral science has been used to shape the organization’s own structures or processes, using a crude “Yes/No” distinction. The horizontal axis speaks to how and how much behavioral science knowledge and capacity are being deployed in an organization.
This results in six alternative scenarios for building behavioral science into organizations.
Below, I’ll briefly describe each of the six scenarios, highlighting the scenario many teams find themselves in today and what I think is the most important move for behavioral science in organizations.
In the “Baseline” scenario, there is limited awareness of behavioral science in the organization, and its principles are not incorporated into processes.
A “Nudged Organization” has low levels of behavioral science awareness, but its principles have been used to redesign processes to create better outcomes for staff or service users. For example, the pervasive optimism bias in organizations’ plans can be reduced by mandatory “premortems,” where decision makers imagine the future failure of their project and then work back to identify why things went wrong.
In this scenario, no explicit behavioral science knowledge or capacity is created or needed. It is the choice architecture (or choice infrastructure) that produces the outcomes (and there is no neutral choice in the way that an organization’s processes are set up). This means the return on investment here could be quite large, which makes this model feel like a missed opportunity for many organizations.
In “Proactive Consultancy,” behavioral science is concentrated but not integrated into organizational processes. For instance, leaders may have set up a dedicated behavioral team without the needed supporting organizational changes. The result is that the team has to work in an enterprising way, going to look for opportunities and having to prove its worth.
This situation reflects the reality for many teams, who are “looking to develop networks, positions, and tactics that establish their authority and credibility among decision makers.” Much of the discussion has focused on how best to set up these teams. The better contributions have recognized that this question is fundamentally political, rather than technocratic—how do the people leading such a resource build relationships and present their team as useful to their organizations?
The problem with this scenario is that these teams may not be in a resilient position, since they lack ways to be grafted onto the standard processes of an organization. As current practitioners point out, “Interventions that seem relatively easy to implement (e.g., an RCT with promotion letters) can require a set of system changes that touch a variety of groups in the organization (e.g., printing services, database administrators, processing centers).” This kind of broader organizational scaffolding is not always prioritized, despite being needed for behavioral teams to fulfill their potential.
Call for Experts
In “Call for Experts,” an organization has concentrated behavioral expertise, but it lives alongside processes and resources that allow this expertise to be integrated more into “business as usual.” At its simplest, this might mean that standard procedures prompt staff to recognize that the expertise may be needed (e.g., any new requirement in an application process needs to be assessed for its likely effects on behavior). Expertise is not widespread, but access to it is.
This setup could mean that processes stimulate demand for behavioral expertise that the central team can fulfill. That team may also have the institutional support to proactively monitor activities and respond quickly to specific opportunities (and crises).
One benefit to this kind of setup is that it allows teams to select the most promising collaborations, rather than taking whatever is on offer.
With “Behavioral Entrepreneurs,” there is behavioral science capacity distributed throughout the organization, either through direct capacity building or recruitment. The problem is that organizational processes do not support these individual pockets of knowledge. Therefore, those with expertise find it hard to apply ideas in practice, evaluate their effects, share findings, and build learning.
For example, reducing “sludge” often “requires coordination among a number of teams in the organization,” which is a problem when teams work in silos and “it is not acceptable in the organization’s culture to interfere with other teams’ affairs.”
Behaviorally Enabled Organization
Finally, a “Behaviorally Enabled Organization” is one where there is knowledge of behavioral science diffused throughout the organization, and its processes reflect this knowledge and support its deployment. Staff apply behavioral science in a deliberate way as part of their “business as usual,” rather than through special projects. While this is the most resilient setup, it also requires the most resources.
Most current discussions make it seem like the meaningful choice is between the different columns—how to organize dedicated behavioral science resources. Instead, I’d argue that the more important move is from the top row to the bottom row: moving from projects to processes, from commissions to culture. A useful way of thinking about this task is about building or upgrading the “choice infrastructure” of the organization, meaning “the institutional conditions and mechanics of systems—the structures, processes, and capabilities—that directly underlay and support behavioral interventions.”
Organizational choice infrastructure should be a major priority for behavioral science. Dilip Soman and Catherine Yeung speak to the importance of reducing the costs of experimentation, including cheaper data collection, creating an experimental mindset, reducing institutional impatience, and building agility, so that organizations can easily adapt. Others have promoted sharing learning itself, pointing toward the crucial role of Singapore’s Civil Service College in “curating and facilitating an ecosystem of learning opportunities” for behavioral science.”
To this list, we should add the objective of developing new and better ways of using behavioral science knowledge to analyze the behavioral effects of processes, rules, incentives, metrics, and guidelines. Such work has surged recently under the labels of “behavioral public administration” and “behavioral operations management,” building on a longer tradition of organizational behavior research. We need to ensure that this agenda produces work that has practical value (beyond the public sector), such as the recent proposal for “sludge audits” to reduce administrative burdens. Doing so will mean that an organization’s leaders can apply a behavioral lens to achieve broader, systemic change.
Dedicated behavioral science teams are still a relatively new thing. Given that fact, it’s truly impressive that we’ve learned so much about how to make them a success. But I think the next stage is to step back and consider how they fit into organizations more broadly. That task is not just possible—it’s also essential if we are to achieve scale and resilience for behavioral science in the future.
Disclosure: Michael Hallsworth is a member of the BIT, which provides financial support to Behavioral Scientist as an organizational partner. Organizational partners do not play a role in the editorial decisions of the magazine.