Closing the gap between behavioral science and business
Matt Wallaert
1025

Very interesting post (on a theme that is close to my heart).

I agree with you that there is more than an opportunity for Behavioural Science to get much more airplay in business. There is a need.

You list a few areas where problems seem intractable, yet where a behavioural scientific perspective can help:

I believe behavioral science can be used to affect a myriad of business problems that have proved resistant to other efforts: the hiring and retention of the underrepresented, the modification of products and services to work across cultures, entrenched user experience problems like payment and support.

Let me add a few from my own experience. Dysfunctional relationships between different departments that produce local benefits, but load costs elsewhere. Poor implementation of organizational change programmes because they failed to address what really motivates (and demotivates) behaviour. Wastefulness with scarce internal resources like office space and meeting rooms, which leads to, and perpetuates, a culture of selfishness. Overreliance on structural levers to guide behaviour, making people feel powerless, or forcing them to dodge the system. Simple inertia and lack of focus that leaves many good intentions unkept, and demoralizes people.

All of these relate to the internal workings of an organization. The opportunity to apply behavioural science here is no smaller than in the creation and customization of products and services, or in managing the user experience.

What I would question, though, is whether the solution necessarily has to be centred around the post of Chief Behavioural Officer. For sure, the signal sent by the creation of such a position is unambiguous: representation in the highest echelons of an organization means business.

But I wonder whether this would really help an organization become more adept at applying behavioural science where it matters. The risk is that it is considered as something separate. Developers and engineers, marketers and sales people, product managers, etc — the temptation would be to defer to the CBO and her organization. The same happens already between these functions and roles: everyone specializes, and knitting it all together is often where things go awry.

An alternative way of adopting behavioural scientific competence into an organization is to inject it in each function. Why? The value of behavioural science arises mostly when it is applied. A central CBO organization would need to be sufficiently familiar with the intricacies of every function that it needs to serve. That is a tall order. If instead the members of each function were competent in behavioural science they would be able to apply the body of behavioural scientific knowledge and wisdom in their functional area.

In other words, the behavioural scientific competence would be perpendicular to the organization structure, rather than in parallel with it. You could imagine a ‘champion’ in each function, someone who is properly trained, and who ensures knowledge remains up to date. Someone, also, who liaises with the other champions in the organization, and ensures the percolation of wisdom throughout the organization.

Could a dedicated CBO organization address the types of organizational dysfunction I mentioned above? In principle yes, but in practice, I am not so sure. In many organizations, internal improvement projects or programmes involve external resources. They can provide eclectic experience (from other organizations) and the independence of thought that is hard to offer by internal resources, with the exception perhaps of really large organizations like Microsoft and Google.

You make a really powerful, and very important case for bringing behavioural scientists into an organization. Yet I think they would be more effective if they were embedded in the respective sub-organizations (with a strong cross-functional structure to support them), than if they were part of a separate organization.

I’d be interested in your thoughts. (I mentioned above that the theme is close to my heart. If you want to know more, have a look at this story. )