Six Prescriptions for Building Healthy Behavioral Insights Units

Essay by Dilip Soman, and Bing Feng: “Over the past few years, we have had the opportunity to work with over 20 behavioral units as part of our Behaviourally Informed Organizations partnership. While we as a field know a fair bit about what works for changing the behavior of stakeholders, what can we say about what works for creating thriving behavioral units within organizations?

Based on our research and hard-won experience working with a diverse set of behavioral units in government, business, and not-for-profit organizations, we have seen many success stories. But we have also seen our share of instances where the units wished they had done things differently, units with promising pilots that didn’t scale well, units that tried to do everything for everyone, units that jumped to solutions too quickly, units too fixated on one methodology, and units too quick to dispense with advice without thinking through the context in which it will be used.

We’ve outlined six prescriptions that we think are critical to developing a successful behavioral unit—three don’ts and three dos. We hope the advice helps new and existing behavioral units find their path to success.

Prescription 1: Don’t anchor on solutions too soon

Many potential partners approach behavioral units with a preconceived notion of the outcome they want to find. For instance, we have been approached by partners asking us to validate their belief that an app, a website redesign, a new communication program, or a text messaging strategy will be the answer to their behavior change challenge. It is tempting to approach a problem with a concrete solution in mind because it can create the illusion of efficiency.

However, it has been our experience that anchoring on a solution constrains thinking and diverts attention to an aspect of the problem that might not be central to the issue.

For example, in a project one of us (Dilip) was involved in, the team had determined, very early on, that the most efficient and scalable way of delivering their interventions would be through a smartphone app. After extensive investments in developing, piloting, and testing an app, they realized that it didn’t work as expected. In hindsight, they realized that for the intervention to be successful, the recipient needed to pay a certain level of attention, something for which the app did not allow. The team made the mistake of anchoring too soon on a solution…(More)”.