The Nudge Unit
I remember reading some time back about the Nudge Unit also known as the Behavioural Insights Team. It was originally set up within the UK Cabinet Office to apply nudge theory within British government and it became so successful at doing this that it became a social purpose limited company in 2014 and has gone on to have a much broader scope across more than 750 projects.
The Nudge Unit has run a wide range of interesting public experiments designed to understand and test human behaviour. These have included adding a picture of an offending vehicle in letters sent to non-payers of Vehicle Excise Duty; reducing prescription errors by redesigning forms; encouraging people to donate part of their salaries to charity; encouraging people to join the organ donor register using reciprocity and increasing loft insulation installation rates.
Applying nudge theory
These experiments got me thinking about how nudge theory can be applied during organisational change and transformation. It can be particularly relevant as part of a change management programme. It's true that when nudges are carried out with care and understanding of the methodology they can have remarkable results. It's also true that the approach has often been imitated and appropriated and can be easy to get wrong when organisations try and copy it without true understanding.
A well considered nudge will give choice - it isn't about taking away choice or controlling that choice. Nudging is so impactful because it does give people control. For example let's take the case of the Nudge Unit's collaboration with the Department of Health, the National Health Service, the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency, and the Government Digital Service to increase organ donation. In this example when people renewed their car tax online, they received a message asking them whether they wanted to join the organ donor register. For one month, eight different messages were introduced to encourage sign up, and visitors were randomly allocated to each. The results of these experiments allowed the project to assess the most effective messages and build these into enduring websites and forms. The nudge didn't make people sign up to become organ donors, or sign them up and make them opt out. It gave them the prompt but they had the choice.
Making it easy
The nudge in this example was also easy to make. It was as simple as clicking through to another link to express interest. It wasn't pestering them to do so or repeatedly asking and following up to see if they had done so. The nudge was also personal. If desired the organisations could have used analytics to tailor the nudge to the audience on the website. They could (if suitable) have tailored the nudge message according to individual mindsets, preferences and behaviors.
The most successful message used will add around 100,000 extra organ donors per year relative to the control and asked ‘If you needed an organ transplant, would you have one? If so, please help others’. The wording of this message draws on reciprocity. It raises a sense in the reader that fairness and a need to give back to others is important when we have received something ourselves.
In the above example it succeeds by encouraging the reader to make a commitment to others. Such commitment devices help to voluntarily ‘lock ourselves’ into doing something in advance. Showing that most people perform a particular desired behaviour and describing this can also encourage others to do the same - so long as they aren't manipulated in such a way. For example when people were told in letters from HMRC that most people pay their tax on time, it increased significantly payment rates (a 5 percentage point increase in payments).
Getting the timing right
It is worth remembering that you will get most success from your nudges when you prompt people when they are likely to be most receptive. Behaviour is generally easier to change when habits are already disrupted, such as around major life events. People are more influenced by costs and benefits that will create an impact immediately than those that are delivered later. This can be why the benefits of a project or programme can feel quite abstract to employees. They talk about a vision and transform gradually to achieve this vision and deliver long term benefits. Yet those benefits often don't impact people immediately, or if they do can be perceived as negative if not communicated correctly - i.e. a new system or process to learn. Think about how your change helps your people to plan their response to what will happen. Help them to identify the barriers to action in their role, team or business unit and develop a specific plan to address them.
Test and learn
It can be all too easy to set up a big change management workstream and gradually roll out your communications and engagement plan across all your impacted communities without really learning or adapting along the way. The nudge method encourages experiments and uses randomised controlled trials to evaluate its interventions. Put your nudge into practice so its effects can be measured and if possible introduce a control group so you can understand what would have happened if you had done nothing. Iterate your nudge, learn from its outcomes and use this learning to keep refining it. Similarly do the same with your change work stream and do more of the things that work.
You can read more about four simple ways to apply behavioural insights here.
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