Getting out of the lab

When I (re)joined industry after my PhD, I had the confidence of someone who has recently discovered a world-class hammer, in my case, behavioral science. With this hammer, I was going to change marketing, innovation, design, insights..you name it. And with it, the world. 

There was lots of enthusiasm for my presentations but after a while I noticed that that’s where it would end. Then one day, I was chatting with a business VP about this and she asked “so where is it in the planning cycle?” 

The planning cycle???? 

Well, let’s just say that was the day I learned that a world-class hammer is still a hammer. Great for nails, painful if misused. And part of a toolbox to solve problems. 

Behavioral science, at least in the Western world ,is growing rapidly as this survey shows. But as the enthusiasm for the counterintuitive findings wears off, questions emerge. How is this different from marketing or communication or innovation or insights? Can behavioral science help us with the big challenges we face e.g. where to launch innovation? Can we run experiments even if we are not a tech firm? Isn’t this all very “subjective” and wouldn’t we get better information from big data & analytics? 

If we are to scale behavioral science, we need to understand its place in the organization. Two articles I read recently were useful to help me think through:  the four-part model by Matt Wallaert and somewhat similarly, the four roles of a behavioral scientist by Bing Feng and Dilip Soman. (Four seems to be the new 1-2-3). Both focus on a similar set of roles for behavioral science: strategy, insights, design (including last mile problem-solving) and audit/evaluation. Thinking through which role behavioral science is playing in the organization helps avoid the “interesting but what now?” trap I fell into. Different organizations may have different roles for behavioral science: at the CPG firm I was in we started with last-mile problem solving through the foodservice team to create a proof-of-concept and then created a “nudge” unit in the insights function. At the Center I was heading, we partnered to do more of an end-to-end project strategy, insights, design and evaluation project to demonstrate the full power of behavioral science. 

Thinking through roles can help set expectations. But that’s not enough. To convert intent to action, we need to discard our behavioral science enthusiast hat and put on our organizational problem-solving hat. Which functions does behavioral science best fit – marketing, programs, innovation, design, sales, insights, analytics? How much money and time do projects need? What skills and people can be staffed on the projects? How can we show proof-of-concept quickly? How will we measure success in the short term (workshops done, projects signed up) and long term – projects done, experimental infrastructure established? What authority do we have to get things done – changing culture requires very senior level buy-in for example, whereas running a proof–of-concept may be easier to do at a middle level. 

And finally, the question the VP asked me – where is it in the planning cycle? Or as a consultant friend said: if it isn’t on paper, it doesn’t exist. So, behavioral science enthusiasts looking to make an impact: get it out of your head and into a plan (preferably written!).

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