One of the more popular trends in management and marketing is design thinking. While many people seem to toss this term around, Victor Lombardi puts it pretty succinctly:
- Collaborative, especially with others having different and complimentary experience, to generate better work and form agreement
- Abductive, inventing new options to find new and better solutions to new problems
- Experimental, building prototypes and posing hypotheses, testing them, and iterating this activity to find what works and what doesn’t work to manage risk
- Personal, considering the unique context of each problem and the people involved
- Integrative, perceiving an entire system and its linkages
- Interpretive, devising how to frame the problem and judge the possible solutions
Many of these points are shared with other approaches to problem-solving that take a person-centered approach and are sensitive to people's current context and realities. The feature that I like to stress is the experimental, or even playful, nature of the approach embodied in the philosophy of 'prototype it.' That is, rather than continue to argue and debate in the abstract what could be done to solve a problem, build it, test it, learn from it and move on. As Tom Peters is often quoted as writing: Fail forward fast.
More resources for learning about and applying design thinking include this article from BusinessWeek online, many posts by Diego Rodriguez at metacool - start with this one, and Tim Brown of IDEO in Fast Company.
All of this is prelude to the challenge: why aren't we applying design thinking more often to behavior change? For example, in the NYTimes today -
“To a person, people will swear they aren’t influenced by the size of a package or how much variety there is on a buffet or the fancy name on a can of beans, but they are,” Dr. Wansink said. “Every time.”
“We don’t have any idea what the normal amount to eat is, so we look around for clues or signals,” he said. “When all you see is that big portions of food cost less than small ones, it can be confusing.”
Although people think they make 15 food decisions a day on average, his research shows the number is well over 200.
200 opportunities a day to influence what, and how, people eat?! I can remember when I first heard that the average family rotates about 10-12 'recipes' for dinner. The behavior design implication was obvious for promoting heart healthier eating patterns: change how they prepare those 10-12 meals.
If we could start understanding how people design (consciously or not) their eating patterns (funny that we call them patterns!), maybe more of these 200 opportunities would appear. And then we could start focusing on things like proximity and access to vending machines, product packaging and who we eat with.
“The people at 30,000 feet can look down and say we need a wholesale change in our food system, in school lunches, in the way we farm.” At the bottom of the pyramid, he said, are the nutritionists and the diet fanatics who think the problem will be solved by examining every nutrient and calorie.
There is a line of thinking in social marketing these days that 'upstream,' or 30,000 foot interventions, are where the action - and success - lie. However, I have yet to see a documented case where the air force won a war.
Designing behaviors - might it lead to some new ways of thinking about old and seemingly intractable problems?