Ideas and insights to take your marketing to the highest level

October 30, 2015
Kieran Flanagan and Dan Gregory

Performance By Design

For years, our sense of motivation has been characterized by how we think about performance and behavior change. The result of this has been a bias toward solving performance issues using a variety of strategies that essentially boil down to a mix of motivation and discipline.

This all seems fairly logical. The problem is that these are both short-term strategies. After all, no one is motivated all of the time, and certainly we are not disciplined in every sphere of our lives.

In other words, these twin strategies are designed for a world of ideals and, as a result, we end up with delusional thinking about our own performance and that of others. We either see ourselves as logical and possessing excellent judgment, or else we admit to an emotional bias then assert this as an asset.

In truth, we are still very much driven by our survival brain. The most primitive part of our consciousness still calls dibs on our decision-making. Consider three separate experiments that were published in the American Journal of Psychology: During each of these experiments, drivers’ behavior was observed in a parking lot. What the researchers discovered time and time again was that when reversing out of a parking space, drivers reversed more slowly if they observed another car waiting to take the spot. This occurred even though this fought against their primary objective of leaving the parking lot and getting on with the rest of their lives. A survival-driven defensiveness caused them to “protect their territory.” This kind of behavior is not atypical. We consistently delude ourselves about the nature of our own performance and the nature of the environment we operate in.

For instance, when at speaking engagements, we regularly ask the audiences to look at those around them and to raise their hands if they consider themselves to be below average competence when compared to the rest of the group. If we’re lucky, we might see a handful of hands go up. The math just doesn’t add up, principally because we overrate ourselves and, not surprisingly, also overrate our teams. After all, their performance is linked to our own identity.

So what should marketers know about behavior and performance in the real world?

What we now realize is that design beats discipline in the long term. In other words, designing systems and processes aligned with human nature is far more sustainable than trying to change that nature using tools such as discipline and motivation.

For example, we were once asked to help create a strategy to encourage recycling for Coca-Cola. On paper, it seemed quite simple. Research told us that people thought the idea of recycling made logical sense and was something they expected Coke to engage in. They also responded to emotional metrics such as doing something good for the planet. They even went so far as to say that they thought recycling was a superior option to simply adding to landfill waste. To test the theory, recycling stations were set up at the end of malls, signs were posted directing our socially minded shoppers to the recycling stations, and the team waited for shoppers’ behavior to change in alignment with their beliefs and assertions. The problem was that they didn’t change. The program was a complete failure.

Time for a new strategy. The recycling stations were moved to inside the mall, virtually placing them in the direct path of shoppers as they entered and left the food hall, and they were also painted in garish colors so that they were impossible to miss.

Unlike the previous test, this was a complete success. So what happened?

1. The second test didn’t ask them to change to achieve the desired outcome. It allowed for an easy win that was in their interest.

2. It not only made success easy, it made failure more difficult. This was critical.

3. There was a degree of social conformity at play. How would it look to not recycle when it was that easy? It would require an active intention to “hurt the planet.”

In other words, by aligning with the survival brain’s values—self-interest, risk mitigation and a bias toward ease—success was achieved.

We would do well to consider how our survival brains can hinder our performance and that of our teams, but we also need to realize how powerful this can be when we align our systems and activity with human nature.


Kieran Flanagan is chief creative officer and Dan Gregory is president and CEO at Sydney-based research and management consultancy The Impossible Institute, whose clients have included Coca-Cola, Unilever, News Corp. and the United Nations in Singapore. They are co-authors of Selfish, Scared & Stupid.

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