What can nudge theory teach us about organizational change?


“And what would you like for breakfast?” the voice behind the counter asked.

I was sat in a Starbucks in the USA mooching off of their free wifi as I waited for an online course to begin. I had only ordered a black coffee, it was early in the morning and I needed a kick-start. I didn’t ask for breakfast. I hadn’t looked at the breakfast options. Before I knew it I was sat back at the table with a turkey bacon muffin and a coffee.

I became interested in nudge theory around 2012 after reading an article in Monocle magazine explaining how the UK Government were altering how people interacted with government. In Whitehall the government’s Behavioural Insights Team began using small nudges to help people do things like file their tax returns on time or pay their fines before they’re escalated to bailiffs. What they’re doing isn’t necessarily rocket science…it’s behavioural science. They’re running small tests and experiments to see if they can influence people to behaving a more socially desirable or predictable way.

The article got me thinking about how we might apply nudge theory in some small ways to help organisational changes run more smoothly and produce more predictable outcomes.

So what is a nudge?

At it’s most basic a nudge is using the power of suggestion and positive reinforcement to influence peoples behaviour and decision making. It doesn’t go as far as outright coercion rather it creates the conditions for people to choose option A instead of option Z more easily. There are all manner of nudges that you’ll have come across without even really knowing it and you may even have been influenced by some yourself.

For example when the Nudge Unit in the UK government prompted people to become organ donors whilst they were paying for their car tax the result was as extra 100,000 people becoming donors. There are other examples outside of government too. To help people keep their pee in a urinal several places have painted small flies on the ceramic to give people something to aim at. Or when a shop puts fruit at eye level and candy on a lower shelf the corresponding outcome is that they sell more fruit. Nudges can be used to make people more compliant, help them adapt to changes more quickly, or simple help them avoid unintended negative consequences by making them more likely to act in a certain way.

Some example of how you might use nudges in embedding organisational change

Think about some small ways you can visually reinforce changes

As you think about embedding your changes are there any ways you can make your change look and feel real more quickly? On one large, multi-year change programme I was working on one of the things that the Executive Committee decided to invest in was renovating 5 cafes on their campus - new chairs, new tables, refreshed drinks/food offering. This wasn’t a priority, and it wasn’t even part of the change programme which was looking at reorganising 13,000 people into a new organisational structure, changing the overall operating model, introducing new technology and new capabilities. However, this small renovation signalled that ’something new is happening’ and helped create a visual reminder for all the staff that things are changing and it’s going to bring good things.

Think about how you want people to respond

The types of questions you ask will determine how they engage. So if you ask people “what’s frustrating you about this?” then most of the time they’ll talk about their frustrations. However, if you ask them if you could change or alter 1 thing about what I’ve shared they’ll speak about that and it comes from a space of ‘possibility’. So during your engagement sessions and in public fora spend a fair amount of time considering how you ask people to respond and how you want them to think about what you’re saying.

Create new default options

People are lazy about things that they don’t really care about. So create the conditions for them to start adopting the new tools, technologies or ways of working rather than asking them to expend effort to do so. For example, one company that wanted to stop using email to communicate internally in order to facilitate changing to Slack simply stopped people being able to email internally, they could only email externally. This became the new ‘default’ for how to communicate internally and got adopted and embedded really quickly. (It’s worth noting that they didn’t just switch off email, they did a lot of engagement and some training helping people prepare for the change so that when it did happen they were ready to succeed!)

Create social trust

One of the best ways to think about using nudges to lead change more successfully is to utilise social proof and social trust. Again using an example from the UK Government when HMRC wanted to get people to pay their tax on time they used the line “9 out of ten people pay their tax on time” this created a type of social pressure for others to pay their tax on time because they didn’t want to be in the naughty 10%. Think about how you can use networks and social proof to show that trusted friends, colleagues and leaders are adopting the changes or living out the new behaviours for example. One company I worked with used their announcement TVs in common areas with short videos about how the changes have benefitted actual end-users and people experiencing the changes. Seeing colleagues speaking about how the changes are positively impacting them made others more receptive to the changes.