Nudging has been a hot topic for years. How can you use it in organizational change? I explore that in this article.
I think it was 2010 when I read the book Nudge by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, one of the most influential books in behavioral economics. I was an instant fan. And also in 2017, for the first time, genuinely pleased with a Nobel Prize winner. At that time, Richard Thaler got the Nobel Prize for economics for his research on how to steer people towards better choices.
That includes the concept of nudging. A nudge is a small push in the right direction. You can help people make better choices by creating conditions that encourage that choice. Not by using strict orders, but by guiding people with a soft hand without limiting their freedom of choice. People can still choose the lesser alternative (for their health, for their finances, for their career, etc). Putting fruit at eye level counts as a nudge. Banning junk food does not.
Reducing salt intake.
In the UK it was found that customers of takeaways were adding huge amounts of salt to their fish and chips. Research showed that many takeaway restaurants were using flour barrels with 17 holes for the salt. Therefore, the government decided to hand out free salt shakers with 5 holes with the aim of reducing the amount of salt on fish and chips.
The ‘Pick me I’m single’ nudges used in supermarkets in Denmark led to a 90% reduction in the waste of bananas.
Similarly, a study by Kallbekken & Salen (2013) found that the use of smaller plates in hotel restaurants reduced food waste by 20%.
You’ve probably experienced being in a hurry and people on the escalator stopping you in your sprint because they were standing still in a zigzag. The image on the right shows how this can be solved with a simple nudge.
So nudges don’t have to focus only on the well-being of individuals, but can also be used for the well-being of a society or organization.
A good manager never thinks, “Why are these people behaving so badly? They must be bad persons.” He thinks, “How can I create a situation that brings out the best in people?
Nudging in organizational change
People are the key players in the success of change. So it is very interesting to look for what motivates people to embrace change. How can you help them in that change? To this end, we can make use of a whole range of models around behavioral change, including the nudge theory. Such a theory or model can help leaders, change managers and designers to better understand people and their behavior on the one hand, and to support them in change by paving the way on the other hand. After all, organizational change means that people will have to change the way they work and think. So how can we find ways to help them make the change?
The Behavioral Insights Team uses the EAST acronym (Easy, Attractive, Social, Timely) to create a classification of the most commonly used nudges. It’s not the only model, but in my experience the easiest to use. And certainly sufficient to start with. In this model, there are four ways to facilitate good choices: make them easy, attractive, social and timely. In the table below you will find some examples.
Nudges for cost reduction
Virgin Atlantic used nudges to help reduce fuel costs. The pilots were divided into four groups. The control group heard that fuel consumption would be monitored. The second group also received monthly reports on top of that. The third group was given additional supplements of encouragement and the fourth group was given the added bonus of donations to charities if their goals were met. The result was that all groups separately saved more than the control group and Virgin Atlantic saved a total of over $5 million in fuel costs. All this without any major programs or interventions, but through a number of nudges.
Nudges for productivity
Deep, concentrated work can be encouraged by introducing a day without meetings, for example. Or you could use a ‘focus elephant’ as it was used at Haribo. When someone hung that on his or her screen, it meant that person wanted to do deep work. At Soulcenter, we agree to schedule as few meetings as possible in the morning so that we can continue to work on projects undisturbed. A short, asynchronous check-in via Slack in the morning ensures that everyone determines their focus for the day and knows from each other what they are working on or who needs help with what. Then again, the Slackbot gives us regular nudges to keep short and long term planning up to date and take certain actions.
Nudges for knowledge sharing
Google introduced the so-called “micro kitchens” to enhance knowledge transfer between employees in an easy and pleasant way. People from different departments meet in company restaurants and coffee corners that are designed to promote exchange of ideas. Steve Jobs built a huge atrium in the Pixar offices with the intention that people would constantly bump into each other.
Nudges for a better employee experience
In a lot of change, the role of the manager is crucial. To improve the employee experience in organizations, supporting managers will be key. However, they usually have enough on their minds already. That is why nudges are so important in organizational change, especially nudges towards managers. Depending on the change that is needed, you can create separate communication lists, prepare your messages in advance with useful information and tips, and then schedule them to give managers a nudge. For example, you can encourage managers to give their employees enough time in a workday to participate in learning programs. With AI and mobile technology, automated and personalized nudges can now be activated as well.
Nudges for more movement
The footsteps that guide employees toward the stairs rather than the elevator are a classic example of nudges to move more. There is a lot of talk about walking meetings as an alternative to traditional meetings. This can be encouraged by providing “walking meeting” as an additional meeting location in the calendar application.
Nudges for customer-centric thinking
To develop a customer-oriented mindset, thinking in terms of the customer must become part of daily operations. This can be done, for example, by adding a customer question (what would our customer think about this?) to the daily stand-up meeting as a standard. Another example of a “customer push” is the empty chair in the conference room, which is there to remind employees of the most important person in the room, the customer.
Nudging as a “last mile” intervention.
In “The Last Mile of Change,” I wrote that it makes sense to have some tactics to get a change to the right place at the right time. And that we need to look for more efficient ways to provide personalized support to employees. Nudging can be a good tactic for that.
Moreover, I think nudging is most powerful in the last mile of change. The deterrents on cigarette packs or warnings on bottles of alcohol won’t stop people who want to smoke or drink from doing so. But if they want to quit, those images and texts can provide just that final push someone needs to change. The same philosophy can be applied to organizational change: when the right policies are in place, everything is working and people are well informed and guided, and people are willing to change, nudges can be very powerful to give that final push in the right direction.
How do you get started? How do you create good nudges?
Start by mapping out the current and desired behavior. In other words, get inside the head of your employee. Not by thinking about what they would do, but by observing or questioning the employee. What is his or her current behavior in relation to the context you are investigating. What are the obstacles or what is holding someone back from exhibiting a particular behavior?
Define the challenge concretely. From the various insights gained from your research, you then try to find the underlying need. What do people need? What are their desires? What are the challenges to making those desires a reality?
Use the EAST model to generate solutions. Make it easy. How can you remove friction? Can you change default settings? Can you work with preset options? Make it attractive. How can you create more attention? Can you use personalization? Use someone’s name. Make it relevant. Make it social. How can you use personal connection? Reciprocity? Commitment? What are the current social norms (what do people actually do)? How can you use this? Make it timely. When is an intervention most appropriate? What is the right time to suggest, ask, implement something? Are there key moments you can use, when classic behavior is disrupted anyway? Be sure to read the article “The Power of Moments in Organizational Change” if you want to go deeper into this.
Do small tests to see if you can nudge employees in the right direction with the selected nudges. In doing so, do explain to them transparently what the intent is, what the desired behavior is, and evaluate whether the nudges work.
Be careful. There is a fine line between constructive nudging and manipulation. Much depends, of course, on the intentions behind it. After all, these can be both positive and negative. If you want to make people unhealthy, then you can just as easily put the snacks in the foreground. That’s why Thaler developed some principles that a nudge should comply with:
- all nudges should be transparent and never misleading
- it should be as easy as possible to refuse the nudge
- there must be good reasons to believe that the nudged behavior will improve the well-being of those involved.
A second fine line is that between a non-significant nudge (which does not generate action) and a paternalistic nudge. Creating nudges is an art. Fortunately, you can experiment with them and guinea pigs will forgive you a lot, as long as you are open about what you are trying to do.
When nudges are used systematically in an organization, especially as an expression of an ongoing curiosity about ways to remove obstacles for people, it can change the culture of an organization. Indeed, nudges are a very powerful mechanism for improving organizations and teams as well as individual change. Therefore, use behavioral science insights to set up small nudge experiments and improve the performance of your change project. If you are stuck with change projects or they do not deliver the intended behavioral change, be sure to experiment with the East model.
There are still very few examples of nudges being shared in organizations. A pity, because in this way you can inspire others to get started themselves. Have you developed a good nudge within your organization? Or do you know a good example? Then be sure to share it in the comments!
banana waste photo – OgilvyChange
Stairs – Ben Peacock
Nudge – Richard Thaler & Cass Sunstein
The nudge continuum – Sarah Lazarovic