Plan for Behavioural Change, One Step at a Time

Review of "Think Small" by Owain Service and Rory Gallagher

Date Posted

30 Jun 2017


Issue 17, 14 Jun 2017


Think Small

Think Small: The Surprisingly Simple Ways to Reach Big Goals

Rory Gallagher, Owain Service

Michael O’Mara Books Limited (2017); 230 pp.


Singapore’s public sector is no stranger to integrating behavioural insights (BI) into policy design. Our Civil Service College (CSC), an early advocate, has organised training and other programmes on applying BI to policymaking. In 2011, CSC published Behavioural Economics and Policy Design: Examples from Singapore — a book surveying Singapore’s experiences with, and approaches to, incorporating BI into public policies.

Policymakers seeking further guidance on applying BI in policy design will find Think Small: The surprisingly simple ways to reach big goals useful. Succinct and focused on application, the book features a detailed roadmap for designing policies that work with individual needs and objectives.

Service and Gallagher are with the UK’s Behavioural Insights Team (BIT), which has taken the lead in applying BI to policy issues and works with governments internationally. Rather than plan grand regulatory or legislative changes, the BIT focuses on maximising policy impact by designing small incremental changes based on behavioural science research, and quickly testing and adapting them. The authors note: “in order to reach big, you need to start by thinking small.”

Behavioural Scaffolding to Make Changes Stick

The book condenses the BIT’s collective experiences and the relevant research into a “behavioural scaffolding” — seven structured steps to specify a personal goal, plan how to achieve it and, more importantly, how to make the necessary behavioural changes stick:

  1. Set: Think about what you want to achieve. Focus on one objective, set yourself a clear deadline and target, then break your goal down into manageable actions.
  2. Plan: Create simple, clear rules that let you know when you deviate from your goal. State how, when and where you will take the actions you had identified, then identify cues for them. Repeating actions in response to the same cues over time will turn them into habits.
  3. Commit: Make a pledge linked to your goal or intermediate actions, then make it public and write it down. Ask a trusted colleague or friend to be your “commitment referee”, whose job is to make sure you stick to your pledge.
  4. Reward: Use smaller rewards or penalties linked to intermediate actions to motivate yourself. Make these non-monetary to avoid undermining intrinsic motivations and good intentions.
  5. Share: Ask family, friends and colleagues for help in achieving your intermediate goals. Consider tapping on your social networks. Team up with people trying to achieve the same goal and you will likely achieve more, faster.
  6. Feedback: Get feedback that shows you where you are relative to your goal, and that is timely, specific, actionable and focused on effort. Try also to find out how well you are doing relative to others.
  7. Stick: The quality of your actions is as important as the time spent. Test small changes to see what works. Learn from what did not work, and celebrate what you have achieved.

Service and Gallagher devote a chapter to each structured step, in which they explain the underpinning behavioural science research, and illustrate the principles involved using examples from BIT’s external projects and internal practices. For instance, the BIT structures its internal annual “FitFeb” month-long contest so that individuals gain points for physical activity, but they can only win as a team. Staff get extra points for organising group exercises. These encourage even the least active staff to increase their exercise level substantially, by tapping on office relationships.

The authors further elaborate on the framework with meaningful personal actions, using “Thinking Small in Action” sample checklists. These show how individuals can apply the behavioural scaffolding to everyday concerns such as improving fitness, being a better manager, and spending more time with one’s children.

Applications for Policymaking

Policymakers and public servants may find the behavioural scaffolding in the book relevant, because so much of our work involves directly or indirectly helping citizens achieve their goals. Traditional policy measures to effect behavioural change use incentives and penalties, but behavioural science research shows that it is very difficult for individuals to change their routines and habits even with the best of intentions and with clear benefits or punishments. Developing good behaviours is easier with policies designed to nurture these habits.

Perhaps the most salient example of the behavioural scaffolding in practice is the BIT’s work with job centres in Essex (see box story). While behavioural scaffolding might seem more challenging to plan, the changes are not expensive and the payoffs are greater. For instance, Essex job seekers reported feeling more in control of their lives, and job centre officers were more engaged in their work. These practices have since been introduced across the UK. Service and Gallagher also highlight that integrating BI into policy becomes easier with each iteration as teams build on earlier efforts.

The insights in the book may sound like common sense. However, as the authors note, people often fail to apply common sense at all, much less in a consistent or disciplined manner. Research also shows that some “common sense” notions actually backfire. For example, telling people our goals will not help us, but telling them specific plans will; making a loved one your “commitment referee” does not work because he or she is probably too close to you to ensure you follow through on your plans; and people are actually more willing to help one another than we think.

Behavioural Scaffolding at work: Redesigning Job Centre Processes

In Essex, BIT redesigned how job centre staff interacted with job seekers. Previously paperwork dominated interactions between centre staff and job seekers. After the changes, centre staff took job seekers through a process that:

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Think Small: The surprisingly simple ways to reach big goals offers an actionable roadmap for effective behavioural change. It also contains many insights on feasible and cost-effective ways to integrate BI into policy design and implementation. It explains and structures key learning points from BIT’s extensive experience and from behavioural science literature, suggesting new ways of engaging with citizens in order to help them move progressively toward their better selves. At heart the authors approach policy with a pragmatism not unlike that of Singaporean policymakers: focus on what works, not how the world ought to be.

About the BIT

The UK’s Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) was founded in 2010 by the Conservative-led coalition government to apply behavioural science insights in making public services more cost-effective and citizen-friendly, and to enable people to make better choices. BIT faced initial scepticism from civil servants and observers, but gradually gained credibility over the course of various projects with different agencies for its ability to design and implement “nudges” that improved agency outcomes at minimal cost. The BIT is now a company (jointly owned by its employees, the UK government, and innovation charity Nesta), with projects in over 15 countries and offices in London, New York, Sydney and Singapore. Here is what Rory Gallagher has to say about his new book.

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Leon Lim is Lead Researcher with the Social & Economics team in the Institute of Governance and Policy, Civil Service College. He began his Public Service career in 2005, and has served stints in strategic planning, industry development and research in the Public Service Division, the Media Development Authority and the Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources.

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