Think of all that time you waste in meetings. No agendas, no outcomes, no reason for being. In-spite of all of the evidence supporting saying "no" to meeting we tend to just go. You feel like you might miss out, that a decision might get made with out you, or that you wont be there to defend yourself. In the meeting you eventually check-out, catch-up on unread emails, do a little shopping or brush up on your Japanese. You're on autopilot and so is everyone else around you. That's just the way things are done around here.

What about putting together a finance report for your next team meeting, committee or board meeting. Could you do it blind-folded? I bet you probably could.

What other parts of your work feel like they could be performed on auto-pilot?

If a lot of your work feels like just going through the motions. You're not alone. It's only human. We create mental shortcuts all the time to reduce the amount of thinking (cognitive load) we need to apply to routine tasks. Imagine if every time you wanted to take a sip of coffee you had to think carefully about the entire interaction!

We develop heuristics, useful shortcuts, to help us get stuff done.

People at work when asked what their experience at work feels like often say: "there's just not enough time in the day", "we don't have capacity to meet the requirements of our work", "I never get time to stop and think". It's easy to see why under pressure people at work turn to shortcuts to get stuff done.

Let's look at some of the features of Thinking Fast and contrast them with Thinking Slow.

'Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow' Daniel Kahneman

System 1

Fast
  • Defining Characteristics: unconscious, automatic, effortless without self-awareness or control “What you see is all there is.”
  • Role: Assesses the situation, delivers updates
  • Makes 98% of all our thinking

System 2

Slow
  • Defining Characteristics: deliberate and conscious, effortful, controlled mental process, rational thinking WITH self-awareness or control, logical and skeptical
  • Role: seeks new/missing information, makes decisions
  • Makes 2% if all our thinking

Spin a management philosophy roulette wheel and you're going to land on "learning" and "continuous improvement" as properties of sustainable organisational systems. What W Edwards Deming calls "Improve constantly and forever." Improving constantly means taking a critical look at how things are done around here. Learning constantly means slowing down to think deliberately about what has been done.

Can we disrupt routine patterns to force people to rethink what's become automatic?

There are two approaches we turn to frequently in design and organisational-design to Think Slow and see with fresh eyes, both of them integrate Nudges.

'Nudge' "Liberalistic Paternalism" Sunstein and Thaler

“A nudge, as we will use the term, is any aspect of the choice architecture that alters people’s behavior in a predictable way without forbidding any options or significantly changing their economic incentives. To count as a mere nudge, the intervention must be easy and cheap to avoid. Nudges are not mandates. Putting fruit at eye level counts as a nudge. Banning junk food does not.”

Nudge to:

  1. to bring to the surface underlying mental-models which influence behavior; to probe the system. (Dave Snowden, Cynefin)
  2. to have someone apply a new frame to a behaviour in context.

Nudge to see what's beneath the surface

Much of what we observe at work, or when evaluating product or service experiences, is at the "event" level of Meadow's Iceberg. It's only natural if you can only see events to want to improve them; to work on parts instead of work on the whole. So how do we gain better sight of what's happening? Deliberately interrupt a routine behavior, see what emerges, make sense of what emerges together.

To nudge a team to hold better meetings, with their help we designed a meeting scorecard. They agreed to its use and scored meetings for a few weeks. The scores didn't matter. We wanted to see what would happen if we could slow everyone down to critically re-evaluate why they were there. The presence of the scorecard in the room gave rise to questions about how information flows around here, a trend emerging of feeling like you needed to cover your ass or be seen to influence in the organisation.

The nudge eventually fell away, like scaffolding and the team shifted focus from better meetings to improving how information flowed in the organisation.

Donella Meadow's Iceberg Model

Reframing as a Nudge

Reframing excerpted from 'Sensemaking and Framing: A Theoretical Reflection on Perspective in Design Synthesis' by Jon Kolko A frame is an active perspective that both describes and perceptually changes a given situation. A frame is, simplistically, a point of view; often, and particularly in technical situations, this point of view is deemed "irrelevant" or "biasing" because it implicitly references a non-objective way of considering a situation or idea. But a frame—while certainly subjective and often biasing—is of critical use to the designer, as it is something that is shaped over the long-term aggregation of thoughts and experiences, through the above process of sensemaking, and is therefore a larger way of viewing the world and situations that occur in it. Like a point of view, a frame too will change, but will change over the long-term rather than the short term.

In what's become one of the most famous examples of a "Nudge" the Save More Tomorrow program had "people commit in advance to allocating a portion of their future salary increases toward retirement savings." (Richard H. Thaler, and Shlomo Benartzi) Save More Tomorrow "reframes the retirement savings decision...this procedure shifts the focus from the required wealth at retirement (the future) to the lifestyle an individual can afford to maintain now (the present)."

In other words this nudge helped people see retirement savings differently.

Designers do this as regular part of their process of solving problems, they might take on the "user's point of view" to put themselves in the shoes of the person they serve.

What if we intentionally brought this process of reframing into how we do everyday work as a nudge?

Can we use reframing as nudge which helps us to think more critically about a routine task?

Here's a simple case from a recent project in which reframing helped a finance team improve the way they influence a business.

Finance teams produce reports monthly. Over time the reports begin to look the same. They're made in the same way using the same inputs and they tend to be delivered to the same group of people. The reporting cycle becomes a series of shortcuts, it becomes "fast-thinking" and automatic.

It is assumed the report informs decision making of the people who receive it.

When asked what they do for a living they answer, reports! A never ending cycle of reports.

We ask the team to think about the reports from the perspective of the people who read them. Reframe reporting as something provides an account for what has been done to a way to influence behavior in key stakeholder groups.

What emerges is: (1) they can't take on this point of view because they have no idea how their stakeholders want, (2) they hadn't ever questioned what went into the reports in the first place (3) they hadn't stopped to think about why we do reports around here.

A simple nudge encourages them to re-imagine the reporting workflow. They setup conversations with stakeholders, redesign all of their reports from the perspective of the recipients. As a result they dramatically reduce the number of reports they produce and increase the relevancy and impact of the reports they do make.