Supermarkets place premium goods at eye level, they put sweets and magazines near the checkout counter and use point of sale advertising throughout the store, they offer trial packs and free tastings, they attract us round corners into aisles with goods we don’t need, and they pump the smell of baking bread throughout the store and also into the street.
You know that. And you know why they do it too: to influence us to buy as much stuff as possible. But aren’t you, as a project manager, in the same business? Isn’t it your job to influence your stakeholders, to help them make the choices that will be of benefit to your project?
So when was the last time you thought about the psychology of influencing choices?
In his best-selling book, The Hidden Persuaders, Vance Packard wrote about how marketers and advertisers try to manipulate our hopes, needs, and fears. That was in 1957, and since then, there has been a revolution in our understanding of how human psychology works, when we make choices.
At the forefront of this research are people like Daniel Kahneman, Richard Thaler, Paul Slovic, and the late Amos Tversky. Their research has uncovered, in a systematic way, the biases that human beings are subject to: a rich topic for risk management and the assessment of risk – but here, I am talking about stakeholder engagement. If you can understand the way we make judgement, then you can reduce inappropriate bias.
If you understand how I make choices, you can direct me towards the ‘right choice’. Richard Thaler has given a compelling name for the way that choosing the right question can give the right answer. He calls it ‘Choice Architecture’. It is not just the question that matters; it is also they way you ask it and the context in which you ask it.
Was passing through Schipol Airport recently. It has one of the most famous examples of choice architecture, and one I noticed when I was first there, in 1990. Printed under the glaze of the urinals is a life-size likeness of a fly. Given the choice, where do men tend to aim? The reward for the airport is less need to clean floors.
This is a simple and effective example, but there are many more practical ways to nudge choices in the right direction. Let me select a couple more from the thirty examples in The Influence Agenda.
Human beings feel a strong need to conform and fit in with expected norms of behavior. When the UK tax authority, HM Revenue and Customs, notified people (factually) that most people pay their tax on time, collection rates increased significantly.
People often do the easy thing and take the default option, rather than actively select the alternative. So which default do you set? In the six months after employees in large UK firms were first automatically enrolled into pension schemes, participation rates rose from 61 to 83 per cent. People did not opt out. Is it any wonder that many medical practitioners want to reverse the default on organ donation?
I am not a great believer in specialising. I have always found that project management gives us a wonderful platform to read, learn and practice widely across very many disciplines. If you are a project manager who sticks rigidly to the practice you learned many years ago, then you won’t be at the top of your game for long.
And if you are not keeping up to date with latest research into behavioural psychology, then you will be missing the chance to influence your stakeholders as effectively as you could.
Dr Mike Clayton is the author of The Influence Agenda, published by Palgrave Macmillan.