2018 - The year of behavioural science at work.

 

This year, leaders should turn away from an intuitive approach to management and change and re-evaluate what they think they know with the rigour and curiosity of the behavioural sciences. 

 
 
 
Scientific explanation stands in contrast to the wisdom of divinity and experience and common sense. Common sense once told us that the sun moves across the sky and that being out in the cold produced colds. But a scientific mind recognised that these intuitions were only hypotheses. They had to be tested.
— Atul Gawande, Commencement Address Caltech

This is an excerpt from Atul Gawande’s address at the California Institute of Technology, republished in The New Yorker under the title, The Mistrust of Science. It’s a moving read but the introduction made me uneasy. Because the ‘wisdom’ of which Gawande speaks, that of 'experience and common sense', is gospel in our business community. Our corporate rank is still defined by the size of our voice and the years under our belt. Our thought leaders remain proud of their instincts, embracing gut-feel and intuition as their core decision-making tools.

These shortcuts represent human thinking at its most natural and innate. They offer us confidence in the face of uncertainty, simple answers to complex problems and the ability to mould reality to our will. With the wind of 'gut feel' at our sails, our ideas can be turned to gold without need for evidence or potential. They can be productised, commoditised and sold for profit. They can compel others to action for illusory gain.

The allure of such trinkets — glistening within arms reach — offer stiff competition to the scientific approach. But I also wonder how much we can continue to speak of a ‘revolution in the world of work’ without rebuilding from firmer foundations.

The spoils, I think, would be worth the effort. While I imagine many in the scientific community squirming at the mention of ‘revolution’ — a word too brash, too bombastic and too much a speculation — this quiet, systematic thinking puts that prospect within reach. We in the business of management and culture-change are — after all — the physicians of ancient Greece, Egypt and Mesopotamia. We swear faith in our interventions of 360-degree feedback, leadership development, performance management, employee engagement and generational theory. And for what? Because others have stories of miracle and magic? Because of a sign from our big thinkers? From our gods in the blue sky?

The objective ignorance (and misplaced confidence) of those ancient physicians did not simply pass over time. For over a thousand years it was not unusual for sick people to be made sicker by ‘treatments’ conjured up by intuition and whim. It was only the acceptance of randomised controlled trials, measurement and statistical power that brought about a new era of progress in the 20th Century. These are the practices that led to spectacular advancements in medicine in the last hundred years. Science, with its systematic and sceptical mind, brought about a revolution that saved and improved the quality of millions of lives. Gawande calls it 'arguably the most powerful collective enterprise in human history'. It’s a phrase that makes my hair stand on end. 

Where are we in comparison? Can we say we’re better off and more productive because of the thousands of management initiatives we subject ourselves and our employees to daily? For the clear majority, we cannot. Now, that's not to say those initiatives aren’t effective - it’s possible that our wellbeing programmes lead to improved wellbeing or our leadership development initiatives to better leadership. But in most cases, we just don’t know either way. These intuitions are hypotheses. They have not been tested.

My hope for a turning tide in 2018 is warranted. While academic interest in management theory is not new, its roots into management practice seem to be taking firmer hold. In 2011, Laszlo Bock was reported as demanding at least a third of Google's People Ops team have advanced degrees in fields such as organisational psychology and physics. In 2014, their VP of People Analytics, Prasad Setty, gave 'one piece of advice’ to a conference that must have sent shivers down many a management consultant spine:

Develop better relationships with academics than with consulting firms.

As we start the new year, Google continues to promote insights on Re:Work. And Laszlo, their leading light for over a decade, has left to launch his start-up, Humu, with Wayne Crosby and Jessica Wisdom. Their mission?

To make work better with science, machine learning and a little bit of love.

If we want our working future to be able to separate what works from what doesn’t, we need the thinking of these luminaries to transition to day-to-day management reality. I could say that aim is purely about performance but I’m not sure that’s enough – if it’s just a quick buck we’re after we can stick with empty platitudes and save ourselves the hassle. This is equally about the other things of which we talk so much: the wellbeing of our employees, the inclusivity of our workplaces, and playing our part in social challenges as broad and impactful as climate change, inequality and globalisation. 

Progress on these fronts needs a transformational shift in what we value - one that turns us away from our uncritical obsession with the ‘things’ that may or may not hold value, like Artificial Intelligence, Virtual Reality, and Big Data - and toward the way we think and experiment with such tools and ideas. It’s here that the scientific method - with its rigour, insatiable curiosity, and cooperative effort – holds the potential to push us forward. 

The beauty of science is in the baton that passes from one generation to the next. Fads will ebb and flow with fashion, but critical thought can be our collective legacy. Let's take the opportunity and put Gawande's words to work...