30 Jan

Useful behavioural mindsets

Success in applying behavioural methods to projects requires a bit more than following specific guidelines prescribed in books. At the heart of an impactful social and behaviour change project is the way in which the project team and the organisation view and think about what they are doing. With a new year ahead of us, here are five behavioural mindsets to consider.

Be open to considering another discipline’s approach to the issue.

To start, it is useful to step aside from your area of expertise and consider the problem you are trying to address from the perspective of other disciplines such as social psychology, behavioural economics or anthropology, some of the disciplines that inform behavioural science. At the centre of all projects is people needing to change their behaviour, and training in your field of expertise may not offer sufficient tools to deal with human behaviour. For example, if you are managing an agricultural project to improve farm yields, distributing improved seed varieties alone may not be enough to get farmers to use them. Looking at the issue from a behavioural lens will help to identify factors that may impact how the project runs.

Be open to the fact that scientific rigour can lead to creative solutions.

It may sound counterintuitive, but you will discover that the process of scientifically analysing an issue will lead to creative solutions. The behavioural design process of identifying key behaviours, sub-behaviours and behavioural barriers can seem tedious and over-the-top. But if you see the process through and match the correct behaviour change tactics to the barriers you identified, often, you will find completely new approaches that you haven’t considered before. For example, we may discover that we have been approaching an issue from a very high-level place, e.g. “let’s change how a community views contraception” rather than what is actually happening in the experience of contraception use, e.g. “how can we give young women the skills to negotiate condom use when they need to?”. These two approaches will naturally lead to completely different interventions.

Be open to failure because it is great evidence.

In development work, the stakes are very high because we are dealing with people’s lives. The heightened stakes make us very fearful of making any kind of mistake. We translate this by designing large-scale projects with enormous outcome statements, and the ostrich effect comes into action causing us to avoid the possibility of getting information on whether the intervention is actually working. A behavioural approach to programme design would allow us to prototype a small number of potential solutions at a small scale first and scale those that seem promising. Some of the solutions will fail, but that’s great because we got some very useful information. Fostering an experimental mindset in an organisation is a great investment.

Be ready to overhaul and rethink your strategic plan.

You know that five-year strategic plan your team gave input on two years ago? How many times have you revisited it since it was published? The interventions that you are designing will have ripples and effects, some negative and some positive. Life is happening and things are constantly changing, so your strategic plan needs to be malleable and adaptable. The Asia Foundation has a fabulous resource on how to revisit your strategy, called Strategy Testing.

Be communicative about your projects, your approach and your results.

As we all know, one of the best ways to learn is exchanging ideas with others about what we did and what happened. One of the things that often surprises me is how little organisations know about what their colleagues are doing in other countries, but even in other departments. The best way to further test an innovation is to try it somewhere else in the organisation that has similar conditions. Fostering an environment of knowledge exchange internally is vital. Often, there is also latent knowledge and expertise across teams that can help you further design your project. Sharing project processes and outcomes externally is just as crucial. A great example of this is how the global Johns Hopkins projects Breakthrough RESEARCH and Breakthrough ACTION have created a mega resource for learning across disciplines and countries on how to apply behavioural science in global development.

For more, I highly recommend the article by Naru & Laffan (2021) on their experience fostering a behavioural mindset in the OECD, which can be found in the 2021 Behavioural Economics Guide.

Have you recently adopted any of these mindsets? What has your experience been? Share your thoughts with me here!