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Behavioural science: it’s ok to fail

Deborah Crossan

I recently attended the Behavioural Exchange Conference in London, along with some 1,200 other people from over 60 countries.

Applied Behavioural Science is an essential component of EDGEWORK, IMPOWER’s approach to achieving sustainable change within complex systems. Our use of Applied Behavioural Science is a major contributor to the results we achieve with clients – the adult social care project I worked on with Bristol City Council is just one recent example.

I was therefore really excited to have the opportunity to listen and pose questions to some of the 100 hardcore behavioural science experts at the conference, including Professor Cass Sunstein (Harvard University), Professor Dan Ariely (Duke University), Dr Ashley Whillans (Harvard Business School) and Professor Katy Milkman (University of Pennsylvania).

There were many fascinating presentations and discussions, and I came away with 4 main learning points.

1. It’s ok to fail

A consistent theme throughout the conference was, ‘it’s ok to fail’. In the opening session, David Halpern, Chief Executive of the Behavioural Insights Team, stated that ‘lots of good ideas won’t work’. However, the fear of failure should not prevent the public sector from applying behavioural science to their challenges. Failures should be turned into positives, with the learning captured, thoroughly discussed and fed into future designs.

2.  It’s not ok to accept the status quo

Is failure any worse than the cost of maintaining the status quo? In my opinion, no. The public sector is not yet fully adept at understanding the cost of plodding along and maintaining the status quo. Officers and Members will often use the argument that something is statutory and so can’t possibly be delivered differently. However, when you get under the bonnet it is clear that this position lacks evidence and that current delivery models have been influenced more by convention than by best practice.

Polly Mackenzie, Chief Executive of Demos, highlighted that between 2010 and 2015 (when she was Director of Policy to the Deputy Prime Minister) the government told local authorities ‘if you can’t prove why you can’t do something you should get on and try’. Has this message fully landed? Not quite!

One way we have supported local authorities to understand the cost of delivering the status quo has been by implementing our Trajectory Management approach. One component of this is developing dashboards that clearly show ‘the cost of doing nothing’. This has two benefits:

  • Senior management teams can visually see the financial and demand impact of making no change.
  • When the service does deliver change through applied behavioural science and other methods, they can compare this against the ‘do nothing’ line, therefore allowing them to measure and celebrate success.

Professor Dan Ariely commented at the conference that we should think about how we ‘represent data to make people feel more successful’. One of the benefits of Trajectory Management is that it does exactly that.

3. Training doesn’t drive change by itself

Lazlo Boch (former Senior Vice President of People Operations at Google) gave quite a damning view on the value of training. In his opinion the amount you actually learn from training is low and therefore it is a waste of money! For me training is not an end in itself, but it does have its merits. Nonetheless, it is what happens after training that is key. Public services must influence the environment their staff are working in, which messages are reinforced, how success is celebrated etc. Applied behavioural science can influence all of these areas, in order to better support any desired shifts in behaviour following training.

4. Behavioural science is about the science – not about the scientists

One of the speakers commented that ‘you don’t have to be a behavioural scientist to do behavioural science’. The key is to thoroughly understand the barriers to the behaviour you are aiming to influence, or as Dan Ariely described it, the ‘friction’ to which you need the add the ‘fuel’ of behavioural science.

Written by

Deborah Crossan

Delivery Director, IMPOWER



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