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Tom de Bruyne

The Prime Minister and the Chief Scientist

Thoughts on the setup of a Corona Advisory Team

By | All, Behaviour in Organisations, Government & Politics

The course of history for the upcoming decade needs to be written in a couple of weeks. Massive failure is not an option. The situation is too dangerous for dogmatic thinking. It’s time to let scientists, behavioural economists, designers and makers to join forces and embrace a build-measure-learn attitude to nudge people safely into the one-and-a-half-meter economy.

Here are 5 principles to set up a Corona Advisory Team that needs to shape society after the Big OpenUp.

 

Kahneman system 1 and 2

From Intelligent lockdown do smart OpenUp.

There’s a growing call in the public debate for the next group of scientists the government should rely upon, to fix the crisis. Up until now, most countries relied heavily on virologists and epidemiologists. With the opening up of society, it’s time now to shift gears and bring in the psychologists, economists, designers of public space, social geographists, etc. 

I think that’s a great idea. Just like we relied on smart people to guide us quite successfully through the intelligent lockdown, we will now need to rely on smart people to guide us through the intelligent OpenUp. The ultimate task of this board is to design behaviour on a massive scale. It needs to figure out the 1000 billion dollar question on how to reboot the economy, without re-activating the COVID-19 virus.

As a consultancy for behavioural change, I think we learned a few things on how to set up a projects like this . So thought it might be a good idea to draft a checklist of criteria for setting up these boards. 

Principle 1: The method is as important as the people

The fundamental principle for this board to run effectively is to have a creative methodology and an experienced facilitator that knows how to guide a multidisciplinary group through that process. If you need to come up with interventions to influence minds and shape behaviour on a massive scale, you need to go through a step-by-step process of gathering behavioural insights, generate hypothesises, prototype ideas and test them as fast as you can. 

There’s so much knowhow on how to guide teams to high-performance output in a context of extreme uncertainty: Lean Startup, Design Thinking, the Behavioural Design Method, to name a few. The team needs to agree to one method and stick to it.

Principle 2: Put human irrationality at the core of what you do

Your goal is to open up society again, while at the same time getting everyone to stick to elementary rules of precaution. Most people aren’t evil or anti-social; they simply forget to think. Or worse, they observe the spontaneous behaviour of other people and assume they can follow that norm. Before you know it, everything falls into pieces. To craft policies for the intelligent open-up demands a deep understanding of how people think, feel and behave. A lot of policies are designed with rational, disciplined people who act in their self-interest in mind. These interventions are doomed to fail. 

Principle 3: Establish rules for good judgement. 

I have written about rules for good judgement in a previous post “How to smell bullshit? Seven rules for good judgement“. The team needs to operate in a context of high uncertainty, flawed data, considerable risk and incredible public sensitivity. There’s a lot of science out there on how to get to better judgement in groups. To name a few principles I mentioned in my blogpost:

  • Superforcasting principles: a set of techniques to predict with fewer biases
  • The use of mental models for decision-making: the discipline to look at the problem through multiple scientific concepts
  • Blue team / red team approach: the discipline to set up a team that argues for counter-arguments, with the purpose of spotting flaws, wishful thinking or other biases in the reasoning

Principle 4: Prototyping and testing before implementing

Behavioural change requires experimentation. The success of an intervention is very sensitive to ‘little big details’. Sometimes it’s just the wrong word, a wrong timing or an unexpected second-order effect that could completely turn the intervention useless. Humans are complex beings operating in complex systems.

Every little act signals something to the group and vice versa: Everything their social network thinks or says, deeply affect their thoughts, feelings and behaviours. 

When your task as the Corona Advisory Team is to design behaviour on an unprecedented scale, there’s only one way to make progress: Rapid experimentation. Expect a lot of experiments to fail, with the simple idea to stumble upon winning strategies a lot faster.

Principle 5: Select people with skin in the game. 

I applaud the experiment that the Dutch Government had done last week. They organised a hackathon to speed up the process of finding an app that could work to track and isolate infected people, while at the same time respecting privacy. Although the hackathon resulted in a ‘failure’, in the sense that it didn’t produce a winning prototype, I think you can also think of it as a success.

The government went through a steep learning curve without having spent millions of taxpayers money. And they learned that the usual consultancy suspects – companies that are very good at understanding how to win tenders – are probably not the best builders. The reason is simple: They have no skin in the game. They don’t have the maker, builder, tweaker or hacker skills that are so desperately needed for this job. 

If the government wants to set up a Corona Advisory Team, I would urge the government to use the principles I outlined above. Don’t go with the usual team of pundits and advisors. Go for a board of practitioners. Or at least: Give them an equal share-of-voice: People who think in terms of understanding the problem and experimenting with solutions. People who move fast, know how to make, build, measure, learn and adapt. People who are humble about the fact that they operate in high uncertainty, but are willing to experiment their way out of it. 

If you want to read more thoughts on this topic on the Behavioural Design Blog:

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You can also hire SUE to help you to bring an innovative perspective or your product, service or marketing in a Behavioural Design Sprint.  You can download the brochure here, or subscribe to Behavioural Design Digest at the bottom of this page. This is our weekly newsletter in which we deconstruct how influence works in work, life and society.

Or maybe, you’re just curious about SUE | Behavioural Design. Here’s where you can read our backstory.

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sue behavioural design

The Behavioural Design Blog – overview

By | All

With this Behavioural Design Overview we want to help you to navigate through the Behavioural Design Blog. Our ambition with this blog is to explore how influence works by applying it to interesting real world problems. Most of these blogs appeared in  Behahavioural Design Digest, our weekly newsletter. You can subscribe to Behavioural Design Digest at the bottom of this page.

Everything we write is in line with SUE’s mission “to unlock the potential of behavioural psychology to nudge people into positive choices about work, life and play“. This is the guiding principle behind our Behavioural Design Method we teach in our Behavioural Design Academy and that we apply in our Behavioural Design Sprints.

You can read more about our mission on the “about SUE”-page.

Essential Reads and Videos

There are blogposts that are essential to our thinking on how to influence minds and shape behaviour.

Key Behavioural Design Concepts explained

Citizen Behaviour / Behaviour in public 

In this series we apply behavioural design thinking on how societies shape the behaviour of citizen

Behaviour in Organisations

Behavioural Design for teams, organisations and professionals

Personal Development / Self-Improvement

A series on blogposts on how to apply behavioural design thinking to design a better life.

Customer Behaviour

Thoughts on how to use behavioural design to shape customer behaviour

Society, Government and Politics

We like to think of a society as a behavioural design that shapes predictably irrational behaviour of its constituents

 Methodology

We dedicated a couple of posts on the methodological part of behavioural design

Where to start? This is golden era for Behavioural Design

By | Behavioural Science, Citizen Behaviour

The Covid-19 crisis requires behavioural change
at an unprecedented scale

Amsterdam empty streets during Corona

Abandoned Zeedijk street in Amsterdam during the COVID-19 outbreak.

A tiny creature with massive powers

One tiny microscopic creature did something to humanity what no other animal was capable of doing:

It stopped us.

Everything we thought about the present and the future has been shattered to pieces in just a matter of three weeks.

The future turns out not to be as positive as we anticipated.
The present turned out much more fragile than we assumed.

It took a tiny little virus to evaporate the profits of the last ten years in a matter of days. It squeezed out a sizable chunk of your pension. It might kill your job, and it might turn the debts you took in optimistic times, into serious liabilities.

The Covid-19 crisis requires behavioural change at an unprecedented scale. In this blog we explore the wicked design challenges for behavioural change.

Make Behavioural Design work for you

Join our virtual Behavioural Design Academy from home and see how you can effectively change behaviour and habits to cope with this crisis.

This changes everything

This virus has  thrown us abruptly into a forced behavioural change experiment, and we are struggling to adapt:

  • We need to figure out how to stay in quarantaine without making each other’s life miserable.
  • We have to find a way to be productive and creative while isolated from our teams.
  • We need to stay in mental and physical shape.
  • We’ll have to use our mental strength to avoid anxiety and depression and to be grateful for what we have.
  • And we’re going to get back in financial shape after this crisis. Surviving this one will provide us with valuable lessons for the future.

A Classic Wicked Behavioural Design Problem

If this is not a wicked Behavioural Design problem, then what is?

(Ok except for the climate crisis, which, by the way, is getting temporary relief from our ferocious efforts to finance our progress by pumping the CO2-byproduct of that progress into the atmosphere and the oceans, whereby we turn it into a problem the future generation will need to fix).

This forced social distancing experiment challenges us to change our beliefs and attitudes, change our behaviours and build new habits.

This crisis has all the characteristics of the ultimate behavioural design challenge:

  • It involves new behaviour.
  • We will need to break existing habits,
  • The behaviour we want to design will probably pay off in the far future,
  • While at the same time, we need to to be disciplined in the present.

In other words: although most people will want behavioural change, their habits, their context and their relative inability to resist instant gratification, will make it extremely difficult to succeed.

But isn’t this the characteristic of every exciting behavioural design challenge?

All behaviours that matter are difficult to change.

Amsterdam empty street 2

Book a virtual Behavioural Design Sprint

Book a Behavioural Design sprint to prevent a standstill and have Behavioural Design help you turn this crisis into progress.

Wicked behavioural challenges to work on

Behavioural Designers always design interventions with these barriers for change in mind. We believe that behavioural change can only be achieved if we start with irrational humans. We’ll need to take into account the forces that prevent them from changing their behaviour. We need to find Jobs-to-be-Done that matter to them, and we need to try to make a connection with those jobs. We’ll need to discover the hot trigger moments, where motivation and ability are high and use those moments to let them commit to something small.

We then need to find ways to keep them engaged and to help them to build and sustain new habits.

We’ll need to leverage our psychological understanding of behaviour to help people to build the habits that:

  • keep them in a positive flow
  • get them to experience deep work
  • harvest the creative, social and intellectual capital of their team
  • be creative and productive
  • get them to experience gratitude, joy and wellbeing
  • contribute positively to the life of others
  • get them to learn new skills
  • trigger a curious and optimistic mindset
  • get them to grow as a person
  • get them to try new ideas and embrace uncertainty

 

Change behaviour and the rest will follow

This crisis forces us to practice virtue in the face of gigantic obstacles.

It provides us with a unique opportunity to practice calm, to inspire others with optimism and re-program our brain away from anxiety into fascination and desire for action.

All these positive outcomes can only follow from changing our behaviour first. We firmly believe that we will find calm, experience joy, get creative and feel the power of great collaboration, only if we act first. Our emotions and experience follow from our behaviour. Only if we can get ourselves to commit to new habits; only if we can prime ourselves into thinking differently; only if we infatuate others with our energy and excitement, we will be able to come stronger out of this crisis.

In the upcoming weeks, you’ll hear much more from us. But we also urge you to apply the behavioural design method to influence the minds and shape the behaviour of yourself, your beloved ones and your colleagues. Use the SUE | Influence framework to analyze behaviour, use the BJ Fogg method to come up with interventions for behavioural change, prototype, test and adapt.

There’s so much good work to do.
Let’s get it on.

The team at SUE | Behavioural Design

More blogs on Designing Citizen Behaviour

In this series we apply behavioural design thinking on how societies shape the behaviour of citizen

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Nassim Taleb

How to be anti-fragile when the virus hits the economy? (update 22/03)

By | Government & Politics, Health & Fitness

Update 18/03

We are now 8 days further into this crisis and the world has gone into various forms of lockdown. There’s a big debate on whether this is the right strategy. It could be the worst of two worlds: We will harm the economy and when shit will hit the fan, we’ll be even more vulnerable. Nassim Taleb takes – as always – a radically different approach. He argues in this paper that lockdown could literarily wipe the virus out in 2 or 3 months. Hopeful.

Update 22/03

I have added a couple of nuances at the end of this blog on austerity.

Update 23/03

Nassim Taleb (the subject of this post) argues that this pandemic is NOT a Black Swan. This doesn’t contradict this blog below. I have included the implication of this argument below.


 

As I’m writing this piece (March 10th 2020), the virus is raging through the economy. Stock markets are heading towards catastrophic losses, and governments are forced to take draconic measures. The virus is going to hit the economy hard. How do we make sense of this all? And what’s the best way to respond as businesses and as a society?  The most useful mental models that come to mind are the concepts of ‘Black Swan Events’ and ‘Anti-fragility’ by Nassim Nicolas Taleb.

Nassim Taleb

Nicolas Nassim Taleb

Covid-19 s a classic Black Swan Event

In The Black Swan, Nassim Nicolas Taleb argues that we humans assume that the world is a fairly predictable place. We believe the stock market will keep on growing. We act upon the belief that the world will keep on evolving towards more prosperity. We assume interests will remain so low; you’d be crazy not to borrow. We keep pumping CO2 into the atmosphere because we believe that nature will keep on absorbing most of the damage we inflict upon her. Taleb argues that we all think we live in Normalistan, and we make all of our decision based on a firm believe in Normalistan. This conviction works very well,… until it doesn’t.

Taleb argues that Normalistan is an Illusion. Once in a while, an extreme and unexpected event happens that turns everything on its head. The classic example is a crash of the stock market. In 2008 everyone was drunk with optimism about the ludicrous profits they could make on the stock market and in the housing market, until the day that Lehman fell.

Taleb calls these events’ Black Swan Events’: Highly improbalistic events that instantly reshuffle everything we thought we knew about the world. People always thought all swans are white until one-day explorers brought a black swan from Australia. This urged us to revise our understanding of the world instantly. Taleb himself made a fortune as a trader betting against ‘black swan events’. He took insurance against the crash of stocks, waited for years until the stock market crashed and got incredibly rich. For a similar story; Watch the Big Short on Netflix.

Poster of the film The Big Short

The Big Short – On Netflix

 

How to deal with black swans: Anti-fragilty

After writing the Black Swan, Taleb followed up with the book ‘Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder‘, in which he came up with strategies to deal with Black Swan Events. He argues that most systems cannot cope very well with disorder or unexpected events. Big corporations, for instance, are very robust, which works very well in times of economic booms. However, robustness becomes highly problematic in times of crisis or the face of technological disruption and rapid market transformation. A big corporation is like a tanker, that has a significant advantage in calm, open waters, but is hopeless when it needs to manoeuvre fast and agile.

The opposite of a fragile system is a system that gets stronger from disorder. For instance: Netflix runs the Chaos Monkey on their servers. The chaos monkey is a script that attacks servers or groups of servers. Netflix inflicts constant unexpected attacks upon itself to get stronger when it has to deal with attacks from the outside world. Taleb calls these systems anti-fragile.

Antifragile systems benefit from disorder, obstacles, unexpected events, or change. Silicon Valley, for instance, is very anti-fragile, because it counts on lots of startups to fail because they expect a tiny group of startups to become massively successful. By allowing lots of failure to happen, it increases its chances of stumbling upon success.

Antifragile by Nassim Taleb

Antifragile by Nassim Taleb

Covid-19 is a Black Swan Event

This brings me to the Corona virus. This is a classic black swan event. Out of nowhere, it suddenly threatens the global economy, the unstoppable rise of China, the American elections, etc. Trillions of dollars of values already evaporated in the course of days. And we’re just getting started.

The virus is ruthless in bringing to the surface which systems are anti-fragile and which ones are not. Let’s look at some observations of how obviously fragile our economy is:

  • The world economy, with its just-in-time delivery of goods and services, is very vulnerable. All industries that depend on Chinese production capacity are now screwed.
  • The obsession with ferocious growth through enormous amounts of corporate debt, suddenly becomes highly problematic, now that investors want to get out of high-risk value papers as soon as possible. Debt-filled companies don’t have reserves for dealing with crises.
  • Most health care systems in the world are utterly unprepared for a pandemonium. In our collective free-market obsessions with cutting away redundancies, we optimized to cope with Normalistan. If the spreading of the virus continues as it does today, the US will run out of hospital beds within two months. 
  • Lot’s of SME’s are rapidly getting into trouble: Orders get cancelled, and incomes drop sharply, while at the same time it’s not that easy to cut costs quickly. You can’t fire your staff with a snap of your fingers.
  • The travel industry is not anti-fragile. Airlines are getting big blows. The first airline Flybe has already gone bankrupt. Airline margins are very low, competition is killing, and the business model can only function through continuous growth.

The efficiency maffia holds a firm grip on the economy. And they usually get away with it, until they get surprised by a black swan event. They collectively shout in despair that they had never seen in coming.

The problem is: There are always going to be Black Swan Events. You never know when, but they’ll happen. We have to design our systems – society, work, our personal lives,… – with the expectation of black swan events at heart.

 

Anti-fragility in the face of Corona

What do anti-fragile systems look like? Who will get stronger from this virus-induced economic recession in the making? Here are a couple of principles

  1. The ability to change course fast: anti-fragile systems benefit from a capability to coordinate for rapid change. Singapore got much credit for being the world standard for how to deal with the virus. The government has set up a massive fever-surveillance system, so nearly nobody can remain under the radar for too long (and infect others). Their capability for massive mobilization makes them slightly less fragile.
  2. Companies that have no debts and healthy cash reserves: In times of optimism, it’s very tempting to listen to your accountant and pay dividends. I’m glad we nearly always politely listen to our accountant and then do the exact opposite. We try to protect ourselves against our own optimism bias. We expect bad times to happen and plan for it.
  3. A diversified product offering: Airlines are very vulnerable because, in the case of a pandemonium, people will stop flying for business. But they’ll still need to talk to the business partner they were going to visit in the first place. If airlines would have invested in high quality video conferencing, they might have helped a lot of companies and event organizers to solve a huge problem. The Job-to-be-done of business traveling is not the journey, but to facilitate high-value meetings. It’s not because people stop traveling, that their underlying motivation for traveling has disappeared. For more on Job-to-be-Done: See our post on The Influence Framework.
  4. A Culture of Experimentation: This is a unique moment in time to experiment with video conferencing and collaboration software. Companies that are already used to working from home and video conferencing have an advantage. We are now rapidly experimenting with software tor virtual classrooms and for virtual sprints. If people can’t travel, then we’ll have to redesign our learning experience within a couple of weeks.
  5. Speed up innovation: If your staff now suddenly has time on their hand, then use this opportunity to invest in your content, brand, reputation. Never waste a good crisis, because it allows you to invest in the things you usually don’t have the time for while the economy was going strong.
  6. Take a lot of small risks, instead of one big risk. When the world becomes highly unknown, embrace fast experimentation. Prototype ideas, run pilots and try to get promising signals as soon as possible.

I don’t know how this crisis will evolve, and of course, we didn’t see this one coming. And to be honest, there’s no way to tell if this will play out well. We have to embrace it and practice anti-fragility.

Update 22/03/20

On several occasions I have been writing against fiscal austerity. In my argument, I followed the classic Keynsian argument that governments should do the exact opposite of what people need to do when in debt: spend more. This argument has been defended by Nobel Prize Laureates Joseph Stiglitz and Paul Krugman and has been argued for, both with strong data-support and with a highly entertaining Scottish accent by Mark Blyth, the author of the book “Against Austerity”. (must watch lecture).

However, in the wake of this epic crisis, you could also argue that running a surplus in good times wasn’t a bad idea after all. Both the Dutch and the German government now turn out to have deep pockets for both supporting their economy and lend astronomical amounts of money. The Germans are waking up with the realisation that Merkel wan’t crazy after all.

This is what Economics Professor Tyler Cowen writes on his blog (which really is the essential go-to place during their crisis):

Of course the content of the spending matters a great deal, but this is in principle the right thing to do.  But here is the catch: out on social media, and in the old days of the blogosphere, there was so much Merkel hatred: “the austerity queen who killed thousands,” etc.  But now she has been vindicated.  We all can agree that a government should (on average) run surpluses in good times and deficits in bad times.  Well…2011-2012…those were the good times.  Yikes.

Merkel goes up in status with this, big time.  And of course it is no surprise that a bunch of Germans would have a better sense of what the bad times really can look like.

Update 23/03/20

Nassim Taleb insists that this is NOT a black swan. For the simple reason that the outbreak of a  global pandemic was a highly probable and predictable event. We were warned for it by leading scientists for decades, and we had multiple occasions where we could have tested our capacity to deal with it  (e.g. the SARS-outbreak). He is therefore very harsh on companies that decided to use the abundant availability of cheap capital in the last decade to buy back their own stocks, which would drive up the value, that in turn lead to bonuses dividends for management and shareholders. Taleb on Twitter:

“Explain to me why we should spent taxpayer money to bailout companies (airlines) who spent their cash buying their own stock so the CEO gets optionality, instead of having a crisis buffer. We should bail out individuals based on needs, not corporations”.

BTW: this is the theme of his latest book, called “Skin in the Game”, in which he argues that a lot of terrible decision making could easily be avoided if the ones who took the decision can be both awarded and punished for their decisions. This crisis might teach shareholders something about expecting more skin in the game from the management of the companies they invest in.

Also read: Live like a Hydra: how to practice antifragility in your personal life.

Watch the complete overview of our blogs on behavioural design.

Contact me: tom@suebehaviouraldesign.com.

 

Dart Throwing Chimp

How to Smell Bullshit? 7 Rules that will Improve your Judgement

By | All, Self Improvement

The great philosopher Bertrand Russell once said “The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt”. In work, life and politics there’s an overwhelming amount of bullshit being sold as knowhow. Here are 7 behavioural design rules to smell, attack and destroy bullshit

In the famous book “Superforecasting“, Philip Tetlock tells the story of how experts are on average not better than dart-throwing chimpanzees when it comes to predicting the future. Even worse, Tetlock discovered an inverse relationship between the fame of an expert and the accuracy of their prediction. In other words, TV-Pundits performed even worse than dart-throwing monkeys. The simple explanation for this remarkable feat is that pundits have this single big idea, mental model, or ideology in their head that they use as a template for everything.

If you believe passionately in free-market capitalism, then all of your predictions will be formed through this template. What Tetlock also discovered was that society greatly rewards lousy forecasters who have strong convictions than cautious forecasters, who express themselves in probabilities. People with strong opinions just make better TV. I guess this explains why total nitwits who deny the imminent threat posed by the climate crisis, always seem to outplay the more cautious scientists who are 100% sure about the size of the danger, but ever careful on how it will play out, and in which time frame. There simply is no way to predict the precise behaviours of the rapid changes in an incredibly complex ecosystem as our planet.

People with strong opinions just make better TV.

Bullshit is everywhere and on an epic scale. In this blog, I want to share some convenient rules of thumb from behavioural design to help you to smell and fight bullshit and form better judgement yourself.

Dart Throwing Chimp

Rule 1: Don’t mistake outcomes for good judgement

Never suspect a direct relationship between outcomes and the quality of the decision, unless an A/B test can prove it. 

The British government under Margeret Thatcher once launched a zero-tolerance policy to fight youth criminality. No matter how small the crime, kids would end up in jail. The problem, of course, is that there’s no way to prove it worked. If crime rates went down, it could have been attributed to dozens of other factors. It’s like the story of the man who sees a guy carefully throwing powder on the side of the street. When asked what he’s doing, the guy says “this will keep away elephants”. “But there are no elephants here”, the man answers in astonishment. To which the guy replies: “Great powder, isn’t it!”. 

The only condition in which you can safely say that you’re confident your action makes a difference is when you’ve done a randomised controlled test. This is an experiment in which you test one variable by assigning a random group of people to two groups. The only difference between both groups is the one variable you want to test. When Uber decided to temporarily shut down 100 million of the 150 million dollars of digital advertising spend for a week, they discovered it did absolutely nothing to their performance. They were pissing away the money, and they only found out about this after doing a proper A/B test. They eventually closed down 120 million of the 150 million dollars of their programmatic advertising budget. 

“We turned off two-thirds of our spend. We turned off $100 million of the annual spend out of $150 and basically saw no change in our number of rider app installs. What we saw is a lot of installs we thought came through paid channels suddenly came through organic. A big flip flop there, but the total number didn’t change.”

Rule 2: Never confuse reasonable with rational

Confidence and arguments that sound reasonable, are how experts get away with bullshit. 

As I wrote in an earlier blog, we tend to mistake confidence for competence. This mechanism is a classic ‘system 1’-shortcut. Our brain doesn’t want to waste too much energy on actively analysing a problem rationally, so it tries to answer a question by using shortcuts. The confidence of the bullshitter is a handy shortcut that allows you to make up your mind without having to think. Unconsciously, your brain thinks in a split second: “He looks like an expert” + “He seems confident about his stance” + “they allow him to say this on TV, so there must be some importance in what he says” + “He must have some information that I don’t have” = He must be right. 

This reminds me about one of my all-time favourite movies “Wag The Dog“, a secret service spin-doctor Conny (played by Robert The Niro), has a memorable conversation with movie director Stanley (played by Dustin Hoffman). They both successfully staged war between the US and Albania, just to divert the public attention from the fact that the president had sex with a cheerleader, just days before the election. 

Stanley: “There is no war
Conny: : “Of course, there’s a war. I’m watching it on Television“.

The solution to this rule:
Always ask for second opinions on important decisions. It’s not because an expert sounds confident that you should take his word for granted. Even the emperor is naked underneath their clothes. Furthermore, never give the information you got from your first source to the second source, because this will unconsciously influence their judgement.

Rule 3: Attack vagueness

Never let people get away with vague predictions because they can never be held accountable. 

If a pundit says: “This decision by the European Union will very likely push the economy into a recession”, and after a year this prediction hasn’t materialised, they can always get away with “oh, just wait. It hasn’t happened yet” or, “I said very likely. That didn’t imply I was sure”. Vague predictions are compelling: They sound reasonable, and they always allow you to get away with things. 

In the Ancient Greek City of Delphi, people went to see the high priest called Pythia, to ask for predictions. High as a kite, she murmured some incomprehensible sounds, that were interpreted by her nodding assistance, who seemed to indicate that they understood what she was saying. They translated the outcome in verses, so they could always be assured that there was still lot’s of room left for multiple interpretations.

The Solution to this rule:
Most pundits are really good at using the same techniques that the Pythia priestesses used in the 8th century BC. You can freak them out if you push them to be more precise about their prediction. If they can’t, then accuse them of bullshit.

Rule 4: Always suspect confirmation bias

When you hear someone defending their judgement with research: Always look for confirmation bias

The business model of firms like McKinsey or Boston Consulting Group is to provide arguments for a decision that was already made. This is called Franklin’s Gambit – the process of creating or finding a reason for what one already has a mind to do. 18th-century inventor Benjamin Franklin first stipulated this principle. Kahneman would call this principle the confirmation bias: the tendency to look only for evidence that supports one’s convictions. 

The irony of Franklin’s gambit is that it’s probably nowhere as persistent as in a discipline that always insists on projecting an image of ultimate rationality: the financial sector. In the years leading up to the 2008 crisis, report after report was commissioned and published that underscored how genius the so-called mathematical models were and how incredibly successful the financial sector was in creating value and wealth. 

Counterfactual evidence was being ignored with force: Whistelblowers were bullied; credit rating agencies blackmailed (or participated in the scam); the financial press had all kinds of perverse incentives not to spoil the party because that could hurt the stock market. Etcetera. 

The solution to this rule:
There are some fascinating experiments with blue teams vs red teams. Some investment firms assign a red team that will get a big incentive if they can bring up the arguments to kill the deal that the company is working on. This setup prevents the firm from being too blinded by the prospect of success. 

A more straightforward approach: always look for counterfactual data and learn a great deal by how the other party responds to this data. If they use it to improve their argument, you will get a better hunch about whether they know what they’re talking about. 

Wag The Dog

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Rule 4: Always look for Skin in the Game

Always check how much skin in the game the other has. 

I have written about this topic before in this blog so that I can be brief here: If someone is trying to persuade you to buy something from him or her, always try to get a feeling if he or she can both win and lose. The one simple intervention that could take away most of the excessive risk-taking in the financial sector is to introduce punishments next to bonuses. If I would offer you a chance to win big if you win, but lose nothing if you lose (because you’re playing with my money), wouldn’t you be tempted to play as much, and as risky as you can? That’s the financial crisis of 2008 in a nutshell in behavioural terms.

The one simple intervention that could take away most of the excessive risk-taking in the financial sector is to introduce punishments next to bonuses.

Like Warren Buffett once said: If you sit at a poker table and you don’t know who’s the patsy: you are the patsy. 

The Solution ot this rule:
Never buy or trust people who have nothing to lose and much to win, whether that’s money or a good reputation.

Rule 6: Expect Goodhart’s Law at work

Goodhart’s law: never trust metrics that are KPI’s

Have you ever heard about the Net Promotor Score? The magical, simple metric that predicts future success, based on how likely customers are to recommend the product or business to their friends. To measure NPS, you ask the one question: How likely are you to recommend this product/service and people have to rate their satisfaction from 1 to 10. 

This metric is highly problematic for several reasons: 

  • First of all: My 5/10 could mean the same thing as your 7/10. Attaching a number to a subjective feeling is very personal. 
  • Second: You have to measure the NPS by the percentage of promotors (the percentage of customers who gave you a 9/10 or 10/10) minus the percentage of detractors (the percentage of customers who scored you under 7/10 is). If you have 0 people rating you with a 9 or 10, and 10 people rate you with a 7/10, your NPS will be -100. If you have two people rating you with a 9/10, but 8 people gave you an angry 0/10, you will end up with an NPS of -60. In other words: You won’t see how dramatic you’re doing, because you’re NPS goes up. 
  • Third: Therefore, it’s quite apparent how much incentives there are to influence the NPS. When your bonus depends on improved NPS-ratings, there’s so much you can do to manipulate the numbers: Avoid asking the question to angry customers, give happy customers extra nudges to fill in the questionnaire. Present the question at a peak moment in the customer journey. Etc. 

This phenomenon is called Goodhart’s law, and it says: every metric that is used as a KPI, loses its value as a metric. If you give targets to police officers, they will get highly incentivised to harass people, just to meet their goals. If you connect funding of Universities to performance thinking, universities will become incentivised to attract as many students as possible, shut down departments with fewer students and skew investments only towards hard sciences. If you introduce individual bonuses, people will be very incentivised to meet their bonus at all costs, even if this would imply getting into a fierce competition for resources with other departments. 

When a KPI is introduced, it will start to direct the behaviour of the people affected by that KPI. 

The Solution to this rule:
Whenever you’re involved with planning and goal setting: Always look for perverse incentives. They’re everywhere. And they’re nearly always neglected or thought of as trivial. The problem with KPI-setting is that it’s the people who pretend to be rational, who do the thinking. They usually think of human behaviour as nothing more than a nuisance to their spreadsheets.

Rule 7: Status Anxiety affects Judgement

Never underestimate status anxiety as a driving force of bad decision making

In his magnificent book Alchemy, Rory Sutherland asks his reader to imagine the following story: Suppose you have to book a flight to New York for your boss. You know JFK is a nightmare: Long cues, lot’s of delays, endless transfer walks and when you finally leave the airport, you’re rewarded with a traffic hell till Manhattan. So you decide to do something slightly less obvious: You book a ticket to Newark, New Jersey: This is a much smaller airport, you can see the Manhattan skyline from the airport and traffic is pretty OK. The thing is: you have now taken a risk by trying something new, against the obvious popular choice. If it goes right, your boss will hardly notice. But if something goes wrong, like a flight delay, you will be blamed for stupid decision-making. “What were you thinking!” “There’s a reason why everyone flies JFK!”. 

Rory Sutherland has this brilliant quote:

“It is much easier to be fired for being illogical than it is for being unimaginative. The fatal issue is that logic always gets you to the same place as your competitors.”

The problem with being imaginative is that it usually defies ‘common practice’ or ‘common sense’. And doing something different can trigger all kinds of unwanted consequences: You can be held accountable for taking a decision that didn’t work out. If you would have followed standard practice, nobody will blame you. You can also be blamed for not respecting authority. I have written before about how the nuclear disaster in Chernobyl can be read as a story of layers upon layers of bosses that were highly incentivised not to hear bad news. So they didn’t get to hear bad news. The reactor was so unstable that it took nerve-racking skills from the operators to keep it afloat. One fatal mistake triggered a cascade of nuclear reactions that caused the nuclear meltdown. 

The Solution to this rule:
Always try to understand the forces that shape the behaviour of the other. Use the Influence Framework to map their pains, gains, habits and anxieties and Jobs-to-be-done: Try to understand how they define success? What keeps them awake? What are the things they are accountable for? Whom do they have to convince in their organisation? How is their relationship with those stakeholders? Only when you understand the social web around the other, you will get a better understanding of what prevents them from bold or confident decision-making. 

Also Read: The psychological prize of being rational is being unlikeable


More on Personal Development / Self-Improvement

A series on blogposts on how to apply behavioural design thinking to design a better life.

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Enroll now in one of our monthly editions of the Behavioural Design Academy. and learn how to predictably change behaviour. SUE trained over 1000 people from 40+ countries and our program is rewarded with a 9,2 satisfaction rate.

Want to learn more?

If you want to learn more about how influence works, you might want to consider our Behavioural Design Academy masterclass. Or organize an in-company program or workshop for your team. In our masterclass we teach the Behavioural Design Method, and the Influence Framework. Two powerful frames for behavioural change.

You can also hire SUE to help you to bring an innovative perspective or your product, service or marketing in a Behavioural Design Sprint.  You can download the brochure here, or subscribe to Behavioural Design Digest at the bottom of this page. This is our weekly newsletter in which we deconstruct how influence works in work, life and society.

Or maybe, you’re just curious about SUE | Behavioural Design. Here’s where you can read our backstory.

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SUE in Thailand - experiencing leverage

Leverage is the secret engine for building a company

By | All, Behaviour in Organisations

This blog is about entrepreneurship. I want to take a behavioural design perspective on how to transform a startup into a healthy scaleup, using the mental model of ‘leverage’.

Leverage is what transforms
a startup into a scaleup

 I’m writing this blog while sitting with my family in a house we rented for two months somewhere in Thailand.  The fact that we are sitting here is the remarkable outcome of a 9-year process in which we’re trying to build a great company. I can say with a little bit of confidence that I have the feeling that this is the first year we got it right. As Astrid – my wife and co-founder at SUE – and I were reflecting on what made the difference, the concept of ‘leverage’ turns out to be a particularly useful one.
SUE in Thailand - experiencing leverage

What is leverage? 

Leverage is a concept, advocated by Naval Ravikant. If there’s one podcast you should listen to, then subscribe to his show. It’s incredibly dense of worldly wisdom and wisdom on entrepreneurship. Naval uses a quote by ancient Greek philosopher Archimedes to define leverage: 

“Give me a lever long enough, and a place to stand, and I will move the earth.” — Archimedes

Roughly translated, leverage is the availability of levers that make it easier for you to make progress in life. When you’ve got leverage, you don’t have to do the hard work anymore. Your levers do the hard work for you. The most straightforward piece of leverage that first comes to mind is, of course, capital. The more capital you have, the easier it becomes for you to generate more prosperity. You can invest it in the stock market. You can start buying houses and rent them out; you can participate in a construction project, you can invest in a company. The means to make capital work for you are endless. Unfortunately, most of us don’t have that kind of leverage.

 

A startup has got limited leverage. 

One of the top reasons why 90% of all startups fail, even if they have a great product, is because they have minimal leverage: They don’t have much capital to find the audience that is willing to pay. When we started SUE in 2011, we had only cash in the bank for three months before we would have to move in at our parents’ house. So marketing and advertising was a no go. We had no cases to prove to our prospective clients that we could service them. We only had our reputation as leverage. And that was nearly enough to convince a couple of clients to have the confidence to work with us. 

The biggest challenge with a cash-bootstrapped startup is that you have practically zero leverage to build a company. If you want to create a healthy business, the first rule is that you stop working IN your company and start working ON the company.

But the problem is: You have no time and money to do this. There’s not enough cash to hire senior employees, Not enough cash to hire a proper salesperson, not enough cash to advertising the business. One mistake (like a bad hire) and you’re back to where you started. To get out of this negative spiral is the only challenge a startup should be focussing on.

 

The first rule is that you stop working IN your company and start working ON the company. But the problem is: You have no time and money to do this

The past nine years felt like a series of consecutive marathons we ran, to finally get some leverage. We are finally experiencing the power of several levers that are doing some heavy lifting for us. (Resulting in me writing this blog in a beautiful house at the southern part of Ko Samui Island). (Just saying). 

There’s absolutely no doubt that luck plaid a great deal. I’m fully aware of the survivorship bias. You usually only hear the 10% survivors and they have the tendency to post-rationalize why their so-called genius strategy led to the inevitable outcome of success. I don’t want to fall into this trap. I can point to many instances where failure was as likely as a success. And maybe in a couple of years, we might be heading in the wrong direction again. 

But whether or not we fail in the long run, I can say that life got much easier for us, since we can benefit from leverage. 

Leverage @ Lamai Beach, Ko Samui

When your company starts to have leverage

Here’s an incomplete list of levers that make a huge difference between an unstable startup and a stable, profitable scaleup. 

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When you have an excellent reputation, you’ve got leverage. It means a great deal for people who are contemplating to work with us if you have more than 1000 excited alumni for the Behavioural Design Academy, and if you have facilitated behavioural design sprints for international brands, NGO’s and governments. 

When you own a content domain, you’ve got leverage. About half of the people who attend the behavioural design academy masterclass, first came across one of our blogposts on Behavioural Design. I’m sometimes blown away by the power of having good content that is rewarded with high search rank. People have flown to Amsterdam from over 40 countries – some flew more than 16 hours – to attend our two-day masterclass. Thanks to our content we get invited to do keynotes at conferences, or guest columns in trade magazines, which in turn fuels our reputation.

Having a senior team is leverage: We are very grateful for having the most amazing people to work for us. Our two senior Sprint Leads Vincent and Cleo are directing nearly all the sprints (with more youngsters like Maaike rapidly on their way to get there), and Tim and Jorn are fantastic trainers. Their work allows us to redirect our time and mental effort to improve our products, our website, our communication with our alumni, our content, etc. This in turn gives us even more leverage. 

Having a great sales lead is leverage. The value of having someone who follows up accurately on people who displayed interest is already enough to pay back for the investment. Susan is both responsible for sales and Customer Happiness. The value she brings to the company , for doing the things we simply couldn’t cope with

Productizing our offering created leverage. There are only two things you can do with SUE: learn the Behavioural Design Method in our Academy or work with the Behavioural Design Method in a Sprint. That’s it. Simple products make it so much easier to generate a predictive revenue stream that is key to building a stable growing company. 

And finally: having a great brand is the ultimate form of leverage. My partner Astrid is obsessed with the SUE Brand. Everything about the SUE brand experience should be spot-on: From the moment you subscribe on the website, to the moment you arrive on the first moment of training or a sprint. And from the moment you finished our Academy till the end of the 6-month follow-up e-mails, in which we keep trying to inspire you to keep thinking like a behavioural designer.

 

Leverage is hard work 

If you understand leverage, then it becomes obvious why the myth of a fast-growing startup is bullshit. There’s no such thing as an overnight success. Growth gradually follows from one lever piled on top of another one. Content leads to cases; Cases lead to reputation; reputation leads to talent; talent leads to freeing up time to work on the company (instead of in it). Working on the company leads to more content, more cases, more reach. etc. There’s a rule of thumb you should have in mind when starting a company. If you are amongst the lucky ones to survive, it will take you on average five years to finally get to the point where you’ve got leverage.

To have leverage is awesome. But to gradually get some, you have to have stamina.

 

More blogs on employee behaviour and organizational design 

How does influence work in practice?

Enroll now in one of our monthly editions of the Behavioural Design Academy. and learn how to predictably change behaviour. SUE trained over 1000 people from 40+ countries and our program is rewarded with a 9,2 satisfaction rate.

Want to learn more?

If you want to learn more about how influence works, you might want to consider our Behavioural Design Academy masterclass. Or organize an in-company program or workshop for your team. In our masterclass we teach the Behavioural Design Method, and the Influence Framework. Two powerful frames for behavioural change.

You can also hire SUE to help you to bring an innovative perspective or your product, service or marketing in a Behavioural Design Sprint.  You can download the brochure here, or subscribe to Behavioural Design Digest at the bottom of this page. This is our weekly newsletter in which we deconstruct how influence works in work, life and society.

Or maybe, you’re just curious about SUE | Behavioural Design. Here’s where you can read our backstory.

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When Accountants rule the country

When accountants rule the country – irrationality and politics

By | All, Government & Politics

The dangerous economic myths
underlying political decision-making

When Accountants rule the country

Picture by Neil Moralee, shared under a Creative Common license

This is going to be a slightly longer post than usual. I want to share a couple of thoughts on a subject that fascinates me: irrationality in governing. I want to argue that billions of Euro’s are being spent by governments, based on bad economic ideas. These ideas are very pervasive, because they provide politicians with the illusion that they’re working very hard. But in reality, they’re making things worse.

How do you want your tax money to be spent?

As a tax-payer, you want to assume that your government uses its tax-income to make smart, rational decisions. You would like political debates to be about which investments would yield the highest societal return. Should we invest more in education? In infrastructure? In the military? Should we invest more in stimulating entrepreneurs to develop thriving businesses that generate jobs? Or should we focus more on redistributing wealth to encourage the poorest to get out of poverty? Should we accelerate spending in green energy, or is it better to remain addicted to burning cheap fossil fuels?

Spending billions based on irrationality

Your average Western government has to make a yearly decision on how to spend billions of Euros, Pounds or Dollars. So you want that decision to be based on evidence and facts. You don’t want it to be based on irrationality. 

The problem is: this is how governments think. 

In the book “Money and Government: The past and future of economics“, History Professor – and Keynes biographer – Robert Skidelsky argues very eloquently that governments worldwide use bad economics to make big decisions on government spending. And some problematic myths form the foundation of these lousy decisions.

Behavioural Design is the missing layer

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Myth 1: Whenever possible, leave things to the market. 

The underlying idea is that governments are not productive and bureaucratic, whereas markets tend to create increasingly better service for less money. This cliche is very pervasive and very wrong. Mariana Mazzucato demonstrates in “The Entrepreneurial State” that every piece of innovation that sits within an iPhone has been funded and developed with governmental funding. And vice versa: Markets have a deep tendency towards monopolies, profit maximization and obsession with shareholder value. This market tendency becomes problematic when it concerns critical services like health care and public transport. 

Myth 2: Governments need to be prudent with money

Our Dutch government loves to compliment itself with having one of the best budgets in the world. Our national debt is rapidly decreasing due to the disciplined cost-cutting efforts of our government. Every European government decided that the best answer to the financial crisis was austerity. Sounds reasonable. If you’re in debt, you have to stop spending and start paying back. But ‘reasonable’ is not the same as ‘rational’. The rational thing to do to prevent the economy from further contracting, as many economists have argued, is precisely the opposite: increase spending. Economies are not the same as households. The reason why this myth is so powerful is that there’s a lot of signalling power in it: Being strict on the budget allows politicians to signal that they are working hard and responsible. 

Two fascinating stories illustrate the point how wrong this myth is: 

  • Belgium suffered far less from the financial crisis than other Western-European countries. The Reason: They weren’t able to form a government for more than 1,5 year – rewarded with a Guinness World Record mention – so they didn’t have the opportunity to make stupid decisions.
  • Portugal, one of the worst economies in Europe defied the European Austerity-doctrine and started investing in wages, pensions and work. To everyone’s surprise, it quickly became one of the best-performing economies in Europe. Read this background article: “No Alternative to Austerity? That lie has now been nailed“.

Myth 3: There’s no magic money tree (spoiler: there is)

In an excellent essay on Robert Skidelsky, David Graeben shares a shocking statistic: Almost 85% of all Members of Parliament in the UK has no clue about how money is created. And yet they have to decide upon billions, even trillions of Pounds/Euros/Dollars. He writes:

 “There is no magic money tree,” as Theresa May put it during the snap election of 2017—virtually the only memorable line from one of the most lackluster campaigns in British history. The phrase has been repeated endlessly in the media, whenever someone asks why the UK is the only country in Western Europe that charges university tuition, or whether it is really necessary to have quite so many people sleeping on the streets.

The truly extraordinary thing about May’s phrase is that it isn’t true. There are plenty of magic money trees in Britain, as there are in any developed economy. They are called “banks.” Since modern money is simply credit, banks can and do create money literally out of nothing, simply by making loans. Almost all of the money circulating in Britain at the moment is bank-created in this way. Not only is the public largely unaware of this, but a recent survey by the British research group Positive Money discovered that an astounding 85 percent of members of Parliament had no idea where money really came from (most appeared to be under the impression that it was produced by the Royal Mint)”

Because nobody knows how money is created, Richard Werner, a German Economist, decided to go and find it out for himself, by applying for a job at a bank. To his disbelief, he discovered that bank tellers don’t balance out the loans and mortgages they issue against a reserve. They simply create the money out of thin air and expect it to be paid back with interest.

What happens when accountants rule the country

So, if banks can create money out of thin air, purely based on the confidence that it will return one day with interest, why couldn’t governments do this? It’s called investing. The big crisis of today is a crisis of imagination. Governments have come to think of themselves only in terms of accountants, or as the instance that only takes money and prosperity away instead of creating it. 

It reminds me of my own experience with accountants years ago. Our accountants always used to be very proud and satisfied when they looked at the quarterly numbers. In the mind of the accountant, a great company is a company that performs well on a balance sheet. I hated these conversations. I still do. Because what accountants don’t see is that an excellent looking balance-sheet can mask all kinds of deep problems: terrible clients, 80-hours work weeks, a significant dependency on junior staff, unhealthy competition, etc.

An accountant could be looking at a company that is terminally ill, and still think it’s doing great. And since they talk numbers and spreadsheets, I tended to think they knew what they’re talking about. You don’t need much imagination that the same thing is going on on a government level. Dutch politicians recently lamented that they are performing well, and yet people keep being dissatisfied and disappointed. Voters are such ungrateful bastards. 🙂

Tom De Bruyne, February 2020.

Read more

More Behavioural Design Blogs on society, government and politics:

Or watch the complete overview of our blogs on behavioural design.

Or contact me: tom@suebehaviouraldesign.com.

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Make Liberalism Horny Again

By | All

Dear reader,

In this newsletter, I often talk about the virtues of prototyping. As I argued many times before, I think ‘doing’ is a much faster way to make process than abstract strategizing. If you start making things, you will get to learn incredibly fast what you need to do to improve your product. You will also learn very fast if people emotionally connect with the idea.

Prototyping is the fastest route to learning if an idea is viable and likeable.

Society as a wicked design challenge

A couple of weeks ago, I had the opportunity to experience the power of prototyping firsthand. Together with Mark Thiessen and Tim Versnel, two friends I met while working for the Dutch Liberal Party VVD, we decided to record our conversations and learn if they might be worth podcasting. All three of us are intrigued by the wicked design problem of how to design the ultimate liberal society. We define the liberal utopia as a society that fosters the highest amount of freedom, opportunities, prosperity and wellbeing for as many people as possible. We firmly believe that societies where there is plenty of opportunities to learn, to grow and to fail, no matter how wealthy your parents are, are worth fighting for.

(Continue reading below)

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We like to think of this liberal utopia as a behavioural design challenge. If you want to create this society, you will need to think hard about how to influence the behaviour of every stakeholder: citizens, corporations, entrepreneurs and politicians.

This liberal utopia is the big hairy audacious goal that connects all of our conversations, whether we discuss governance, populism, climate crisis, innovation or policies.

Make Liberalism Horny Again

After we recorded our first conversation, we were not embarrased with the outcome, so we decided to continue to give it a couple of attempts. The next day Tim got a call from the editors from Nieuwsuur, a prime time political TV-show in the Netherlands because they heard about our prototyping through the grapevine. Five days later a camera crew showed up to record our second episode.

I was in a bit of cheerful mood, so when they asked me what the goal of the podcast was, I blurted out “We want to make liberalism horny again”. One week later, the editors used this quote for the headline of the item. What I didn’t realize at the time of the recording was that the narrative that they wanted to create was a narrative of a new “young” generation that wants to re-shape the Dutch Liberal Party. It was only a matter of hours after the TV item aired, that we got overwhelmed with messages from people within and outside the party. We even heard that “horny liberalism” actually made it to the VVD- party executive meeting. 🙂

The Power of Prototyping

What amuses me the most is that we hadn’t even published our first episode and the podcast already became a phenomenon. We neither had proper recording gear, so the sound quality was utterly embarrassing. We also had no idea how we wanted to talk, as you will notice if you can get beyond the first 10 minutes. However, through prototyping, we quickly learned that the idea had leverage. We even discovered that there was a big appetite for this content amongst people who want liberalism to flourish, and that includes people from the competing Dutch Liberal party D66. We would never have discovered this if we had waited till we got it just right. Even worse, I think we probably wouldn’t have succeeded in eventually publishing our first episode.

I think it was Stanford Professor Steve Blank, an authority on startups, who once famously said: “If you’re not embarrassed by your first release, you probably released too late”.

The interview that was used as teaser (Dutch).

Our website “De nieuwe vrije eeuw” + link to the podcast (Dutch)

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The disastrous behaviour that triggered Chernobyl

The disastrous behaviour that triggered Chernobyl

By | All, Citizen Behaviour, Government & Politics

I just finished reading “Midnight in Chernobyl“. A chilling and magnificent book on the world’s greatest nuclear disaster. But as much as it is a book about Chernobyl, it’s above all a book on behavioural design. The book provides a fascinating peek into how totalitarian regimes like the Soviet Union profoundly shape the behaviour of its constituents.

The leadership of the Soviet Union created a magnificent illusion that the ultimate workers’ paradise of True Communism was on the horizon if everyone stuck with the plans of the Party. The best way to understand the behaviour of the people inside the Party is to look at it through the lens of a sadistic game. The higher you got in the ranks, the more effort you had to put in defending your position. Inversely, the most dreadful thing that could happen to you is to fall out of the Party’s grace.

The disastrous behaviour that triggered Chernobyl

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It’s, therefore, no surprise that the Communist Game Design produced only ruthless and sociopathic men who made it to the top. It also created a culture of lies, secrecy, and false reporting for the simple reason that no one in the communist hierarchy wanted – or could afford – to hear bad news.

Why they didn’t want to hear bad news had to do with the two obsessions of the former Soviet Union: ludicrous targets and the competition with the West. Goals that were not going to be met, triggered fury and outrage at the top, and creative corner-cutting at the bottom of the pyramid. The Soviet Union leadership always had to prove that they were able to pull off the impossible. They had to do this to maintain the illusion that it was far more capable than those bloody western capitalists. Not being able to meet the impossible was the equivalent of treason.

Being loyal beats being right

In a culture like this, rational decision-making becomes impossible. Every fact will be interpreted through this obsessive lens: “Could this fact hurt my reputation”? or “Could the Party lose face if this fact were true”? You don’t want this decision-making process when you’re building a nuclear reactor, operating one, or when you’re trying to contain it after the explosion. Reactors got built with lousy material, and prototype tests were skipped, because deadlines were sacred. Known critical errors in the design of the reactor were discarded (because it could hurt the reputation of the Soviet nuclear community), safety protocols were overruled, because deadlines had to be met,… And at every stage there always was a bullying chief who made sure people didn’t step up.

Adam Higginbotham writes:

“The accident and the government’s inability to protect the population from its consequences finally shattered the illusion that the USSR was a global superpower armed with technology that led the world. And, as the state’s attempts to conceal the truth of what had happened  came to light, even the most faithful citizens of the Soviet Union faced the realization that their leaders were corrupt and that the Communist dream was a sham”. (p. 276)

Societies shape behaviour

Midnight in Chernobyl is a fascinating story of how behaviour of a whole nation is shaped by the invisible rules of the game. Everyone is trapped inside the rules of this game, not in the least those at the top.

When you approach it from this angle, then the book pairs surprisingly well with Life.Inc. In this book, Douglas Rushkoff argues that we in the West have entirely internalized corporate thinking. We’ve become obsessed with success, we have started to see everything as assets, and we divide the world into winners and losers.

If you need to bring two books with you on holiday that will teach you a lot without being boring business books, then these are the ones.

Update February 17th 2020:

It’s also quite interesting to observe that a similar pattern is taking place in China in the context of the Corona virus outbreak.. The Chines Government is trying to contain the virus, but are now experiencing unpleasant surprises, due to  overly optimistic reporting from the local governments. People just didn’t want to report bad news, because it could hamper their changes for making career. This is a perfect illustration of Goodhart’s Law:

“When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.”

In other words: When your promotion depends on the things you measure, you start cooking the numbers.

Want to read more?

More blogposts on the design of citizen behaviour.

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Prototyping happiness

By | All, Health & Fitness, Self Improvement

If I asked you to think about the secret of life, love and happiness, the answer you’d probably least expect would be… prototyping. And yet, I want to argue why prototyping is the open gate to living a happier life. Psychologist Todd Kashdan claims that the number one driver for living a happy life is the pursuit of curiosity. Curious people experience new things, meet new people, experience success, develop new skills, get surprised, etc.

Fear of failure kills curiosity

However, when it comes to the pursuit of curiosity, fear of failure is the big elephant in the room. Our daily life, as well as our professional life,  is filled with a near panic fear for failure: Fear of embarrassment, fear of being held accountable, fear of being confronted with our limitations, the fear of imposter syndrome, etc. The sole purpose of most meetings is to cover the risk of taking risky new decisions.

My co-founder and wife Astrid have a simple mantra to break this pattern. It’s called prototyping. Our default answer to exciting new ideas is: “Great idea, let’s prototype it”. Prototyping comes down to experimenting with a minimal version of something, to figure out what works and what doesn’t work. You can apply this to startups, marketing, but also to your professional and personal life.

Eric Ries argues in the Lean Startup that we shouldn’t think of startups as mini-enterprises, but rather as learning projects. A startup is an experimentation lab in which the founders need to figure out how to generate paying customers before the money runs out. They do this through frantic tweaking with the product, service, proposition, marketing and communication.

The biggest threat to startups is the “reality distortion field” of the founders: the ability to convince themselves and their stakeholders that they have a killer product. But too often, they only discovered too late they were building a solution in the search for a problem.

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The 2020-editions of the SUE | Behavioural Design Academy foundation course are now online

Prototyping everything

The cool thing about prototyping is that you can never fail. You can only learn. That’s why Astrid and I prototype everything in our life: From working at home to working where it’s summertime. From the creation of a presentation deck to the development of a new training programme for the Behavioural Design Academy. From running half a marathon to living plant-based and going for zero-emission. We slice the problem into its smallest components, try out a minimally viable version and try to figure out what we could learn. Failure is not an option because every outcome of the experiment is exciting and can help us to make better decisions.

There are only two psychological barriers that cripple innovation: the fear of failure and the ego desire to be seen as an expert. They both block curiosity and hence the road to mystery, excitement, discovery and a little wiiiiii when you discover that something works.

Book a 60-minutes with SUE

Do you consider hiring SUE to learn how we could help you to imrpove your product, service or marketing through behavioural psychology? Book 60-minutes with SUE. Get a Behavioural Design perspective on your challenge. Who knows where it could lead to…