The Integration of Behavioural Science into Business

How to Overcome Resistance to Using It in the Organisation
  • Helena Rubinstein


This is a case study of how behavioural science was introduced into an established business, the challenges of integrating it and the lessons learned for how to apply it. Rubinstein highlights the importance of addressing the concern that behavioural science will disrupt tried and tested ways of working, and the need to change internal mindsets. Behavioural science is not suited for all challenges and the organisation needs to be clear about where and how it adds value. If a company decides to develop a behavioural science function, it is necessary to identify a senior manager to champion the new function and find a leader with behavioural science expertise who can communicate, build and lead a team of specialists. The leader needs to make the case for why using the scientific method to understand human behaviour is more effective than existing approaches.


Innovation Leadership Resistance to change Team building 

Ben, Alastair, Colin and Geraint were sitting in the main boardroom at Innovia in August 2014, discussing the induction plan for the new senior hire who was joining the company in four weeks’ time.

“It’ll be good to have a consultant with a background in psychology on the team,” Geraint commented. “We’ll be working with someone who really has in-depth expertise in human motivation and behaviour.”

Alastair agreed. “Going deeper into psychology might help us to design products and services that really meet people’s needs and desires.”

Ben looked uncomfortable. As the head of the design team, he thought that the designers were already pretty good at understanding people’s needs. “I hope she shows us new ways to do things,” he said.

Colin nodded. “Judging from her CV, she will have some new approaches. However, we really need to make sure that she fully understands how we work and is properly integrated into the team.”

“It’s always a challenge when we introduce a new function here,” Alastair said. “But we have done it before successfully and as long as we give her time to explain what she does and how she does it, I think we’ll be OK.”

And so, it was. This chapter is about how the new discipline of behavioural science was introduced to Innovia and how it became integrated into Innovia’s multi-disciplinary culture.

* * *

In earlier chapters, we discussed the history of behavioural science, saw how theories and models can be used to improve research and refine product and service design, and described a process for designing interventions to change behaviour. This chapter is a case study of how behavioural science was introduced into a well-established company—Innovia Technology, where I work today. We’ll cover the challenges that we faced around integration, and the opportunities that we found to apply it well. Along the way, we’ll see real-life examples of how behavioural science was used to good effect. We’ll cover the challenges of introduction, how we gained credibility, and then how we generalised our findings to other companies.

We introduced behavioural science into Innovia Technology, a company that specialises in ‘front-end’ innovation. This is the type of innovation that occurs very early on in the design of products and services—well before the commercial phase of new product development (Koen, Bertels, & Kleinschmidt, 2014). To innovate well at this early stage, you need a ‘holistic’ approach (one that crosses organisational disciplines) and you need to be comfortable with high levels of uncertainty (Herstatt & Verworn, 2001; Khurana & Rosenthal, 1998). The methods and approaches used at this stage of new business creation are different from the more typical type of everyday incremental innovation, because you are trying to imagine and design new concepts that may differ radically from what has gone before (Val-Jauregi & Justel, 2007). Not surprisingly, this stage is often referred to as ‘the fuzzy front end’. It rarely follows a linear trajectory. You need to be comfortable with high levels of ambiguity, to be able to learn and iterate, and you also need huge amounts of patience!

Innovia Technology was founded in Cambridge, UK in 1999. At the time of writing, the company consists of a group of about eighty people with a wide range of backgrounds—physics, chemistry, engineering, product and industrial design, psychology, biology, public health, biochemistry, and veterinary science. They operate in a large, open-plan space—there are no departments or divisions. Biologists sit next to engineers, and chemists with designers. Innovian material scientists work seamlessly on project teams with biochemists and economists, solving innovation challenges for some of the world’s largest and most successful companies—Shell, Procter & Gamble, PepsiCo, Boeing, LEGO and Bayer. Many of their innovations have resulted in the granting of worldwide patents for their clients. Innovia consultants most frequently interact with people in Research and Development, Innovation, Marketing, and Strategy departments.

Up until 2014, however, there were no psychologists in the company, even though many of the challenges they worked on had a human component. Instead, there were talented individuals who had developed a good feel for end users. So, for example, they found a way to convincingly demonstrate to consumers the benefits of contact lenses for astigmatism that was far better than the conventional Snellen chart; they designed a strapless bra, using engineering principles, which was a hit with consumers; and they created a world-record setting swimsuit, in part informed by research into swimmer psychology. This broad experience helped many of the consultants to develop some degree of intuition.

Nevertheless, Innovia recognised that experience and intuition are not easily scaled, can be subjective, and may be incorrect. To improve services further, Innovia decided to bring in someone with expert knowledge of how people think, feel and behave. In September 2014, I joined Innovia as the only psychologist in the company. My background was varied. I had worked in market research and advertising and had run a global brand consultancy. I had a doctorate in social psychology and had conducted research in health psychology. I felt ready for a new challenge in the world of innovation and was convinced that the behavioural sciences could play an important role in the development of better products and services. But, to make this possible, I needed to develop an approach that would fit with the established ways of working at the firm.

Taking on a behavioural scientist was an experiment for the company. Four years on, Innovia would say that the experiment has been a resounding success. Behavioural scientists with backgrounds in social and health psychology, consumer psychology, behavioural economics, experimental design and cognitive neuroscience are now part of the team. Within the multidisciplinary teams, our behavioural scientists create even more value for companies working at the front end of innovation. What follows is a description of how it was introduced and integrated into the organisation.

5.1 What Are the Challenges with Integrating Behavioural Science into an Organisation?

I asked ten senior innovation consultants at Innovia to describe their experience of this integration process. Specifically, they discussed how they felt when each new set of skills in behavioural science was first introduced in the company, how easy or difficult it was to integrate it into operations, and what were the successes and failures. As all of these consultants work closely with client companies, I wanted to know what they perceived to be the biggest barriers faced by large corporations when trying to use behavioural science and where the capability fits most easily within a company.

From this, I identified three major barriers to the integration of behavioural science.
  1. 1.

    Fear of disrupting tried-and-tested ways of working

  2. 2.

    Concern about effectiveness of the approach

  3. 3.

    Confusion about why this approach is different


5.1.1 Fear of Disrupting Tried-and-Tested Ways of Working

As with many human responses to change, although the rationale for employing people with expertise in understanding behaviour was very logical, the response to change was more emotional. People worried that this new approach might disrupt their usual ways of working.

Shreyas, an innovation strategist, commented that, “People didn’t know what behavioural science was. Why would it be beneficial? How would it be different from what we traditionally do?”

Geraint, one of the founders of Innovia, reflected that there were concerns that it would somehow disrupt the usual way of working. “We had established ways of solving problems that needed people insight—then behavioural science came along and we had to change our expectations of what tools we needed to use.”

This is not unique to behavioural science; there may be resistance to change when any new way of doing things is introduced into a system that is already working efficiently. When there is no apparent problem, people want business as usual. But with behavioural science, this problem is often compounded by a lack of institutional knowledge about what methods it used, and confusion about how it differs from other activities that sounded similar.

People can find it hard to understand the unique benefits that behavioural science provides. Ben, the head of design, thought that it might be similar to design thinking, which focuses on peoples’ needs. Alex, who led the life scientists, wondered whether it was really just the same as the consumer-insight work he’d done before. Rob, the head of sales, said it sounded similar to what the marketing people did.

As Ben later reflected, “Innovia needed behavioural science to improve our understanding of peoples’ needs and motivations but we had to be careful in how we positioned it. There was a buzz around behavioural science and we had to get people up to speed in a soft way. It’s a perfect fit for both the techies and the creatives here, but there were tensions in both camps.”

Bringing in a new capability can be difficult for the organisation. As with any scientific discipline, people trained in behavioural science have particular ways of approaching problems, and these approaches are not familiar to everyone. People have to learn each other’s languages. Fortunately, Innovia was better placed than many companies to overcome these barriers.

As Alastair, the CEO, said, “being curious, diverse, and holistic are core to the way we work. People take that very seriously and so we accept more learning pain than most would. We think it is worth going through because it is the right way to operate. We support each other rather than laughing at each other.”

5.1.2 Concern About the Effectiveness of the Approach

As befits those who work at the fuzzy front end of innovation, Innovians are open-minded. Although they had reservations about how behavioural science might contribute, they were prepared to see how it could help. An opportunity came along early: a project about wet shaving for males in Asia. This needed both an understanding of the technical effects of shaving and an understanding of the consumer—a truly multidisciplinary problem.

Innovia’s new behavioural science process meant that it approached the challenge in a very different way than it had approached previous challenges.
  • The team used a model of consumer behaviour (an adapted version of the Theory of Planned Behaviour (Ajzen, 1991)) to identify the most important factors influencing shaving behaviour

  • The team populated the model with the client’s existing data, so didn’t need to collect new data

  • Interventions to increase wet shaving were designed based on an understanding of how habits are created

The behavioural scientists helped to translate technical data into meaningful communications for the consumers. The designers then brought these communications to life. The behavioural scientists ensured that the communication strategies were evidence-based and facilitated the knowledge transfer from the technical rationale to the consumer communications.

The behavioural scientists certainly demonstrated how they could contribute to front-end innovation. This project proved that this new method of working was relevant and led to different ways to communicate with consumers.

There was a degree of beginner’s luck here. Not every subsequent project was as straightforward. The shaving project had lots of existing data, but this isn’t always the case. We can’t do an analysis or a behavioural diagnostic without data—otherwise we would have to rely on intuition and hunches. Data gathering can be expensive and time consuming. Even with good input data, the process of designing an effective intervention (as described in Chap.  4) takes more time than just going straight from the behavioural diagnostic to intervention design. In line with the scientific method, there may be several rounds of testing and evaluation: we may decide to test hypotheses about the model of behaviour, and we may test the interventions to see if they are effective in changing behaviour. As Kora, a behavioural economist, commented, “there is a tension between using the scientific approach and being quick”.

It’s important to be rigorous, but in a commercial context, it’s also important to deliver solutions in a timely fashion. The five-step process, described in Chap.  4 was developed, in part, to show how to address behavioural challenges in a systematic way but also to show how to flex as the challenge requires.

5.1.3 Confusion About Why This Approach Is Different

Initially, Innovians did not know what behavioural science was. They needed to understand when they should use behavioural science on projects, and they needed to be involved in the behavioural science process so they understood the value that it could deliver. People could then see how different it was from the market research and consumer insights they had previously been exposed to.

Shreyas thought that behavioural science as a separate discipline was hard for people to understand because “a lot of evidence is counter-intuitive. People make assumptions [about why people do things] and believe they are intuitive about other people. We all have biases. Everyone is human and everyone behaves. Therefore, everyone thinks that they are experts on human behaviour.”

Differentiating behavioural science was therefore really important. It was not just a case of educating people about the benefits of using behavioural science. People also needed to understand why it’s hard to understand human behaviour intuitively. They needed to change their mindset from ‘I understand human behaviour because I am human’ to ‘It’s really hard to predict human behaviour and very difficult to change it!’ This message was not only important for Innovians, but also for our clients.

Tim, a physicist by training, summarised the challenge in this way. “You sometimes get pushback against looking at the problem with different eyes. It’s hard to innovate if you don’t really understand people. Behavioural science has an exploratory power that is not just descriptive—you can extrapolate from it. Marketing insights are OK if you want to interpolate, but in breakthrough innovation we can’t just interpolate because we have to move away from where we are now.”

5.2 How Did Behavioural Science Quickly Build Credibility?

Over the next few years, the new behavioural science capability gained credibility within Innovia and with its clients. This integration and acceptance were successful for four major reasons: the scientific method fitted the culture and approaches already in use; it was well communicated and explained; the team was experienced and knowledgeable; and, critically, the approach was aligned with the objectives and values of the business. These are described in more detail below.

5.2.1 It Used the Scientific Method

Innovia , as a consultancy with a strong foundation in science and technology, was sympathetic to an approach that used the scientific method. The rigorous behavioural science approach was a natural fit in a culture that was suspicious of approaches that were ‘soft and unsubstantiated’ and it worked very well with breakthrough innovation.

“It helped us to think about what shaped human behaviour, including irrationality, in a rational way,” said Rob.

Tim echoed this thought. “It’s not a black box. You can explain this to technical clients and say what it is for.”

5.2.2 It Was Well Communicated and Explained

To help people understand the value of this approach, I had to develop a clear strategy to explain to people at Innovia what behavioural science was and what were the benefits of using it. My explanation needed to be simple enough to understand but detailed enough to show how behavioural science differed from traditional methods of understanding the consumer.

When people asked, I said, “Have you ever noticed that people don’t always do what they say they do? Can you see the problem with collecting research where you ask people what they do, and then assume they will actually do that? With behavioural science, you don’t need to think about what people say they do, you can just focus on what they actually do.” Andy, a physicist and relationship manager, found this particularly helpful in trying to work out when and why to use behavioural science on projects. “‘Why don’t people do what they say they do?’ I got that really quickly and it made sense.”

I had a quick explanation for people who asked me about behavioural science, but I also needed to reach the people who didn’t ask me. I organised a series of company-wide learning sessions to explain the approaches and processes that could be used, taking care to demonstrate their practical applicability wherever possible.

Alastair reflected that, “it was both difficult and easy to take on board. We realised how poorly we understood what to do to influence behaviour and how unsuccessful our attempts often are. Going deeper into psychology might help to solve these problems in the real world. So, we recognised that it could help us to understand how our brains worked.”

5.2.3 The Team Was Experienced and Knowledgeable

It was an advantage that I had a credible background spanning both the commercial sector and the academic world. I had a lot of knowledge from my professional commercial experience, but I was also up-to-date with the latest academic thinking. More importantly, I recruited a diverse team to help us to apply behavioural science effectively across a wide range of projects.

In keeping with Innovia’s belief in the importance of working in holistic teams, the behavioural scientists were also holistic: their backgrounds spanned social psychology, health psychology, psychobiology, cognitive neuroscience, experimental psychology, behavioural economics, and consumer psychology. And just as chemists had to learn to understand the language of the engineers, the behavioural scientists had to learn to speak each other’s language. It may surprise those outside the discipline of psychology that social psychologists are trained quite differently from neuroscientists, who in turn are trained differently from behavioural economists. There is a common base, but as they progress through their discipline-specific training, their approaches diverge.

Our response to this was to build the identity of the team. Behavioural science is a relatively new discipline, at least in its current form, and so we needed the team to share some core approaches and speak the same language. To achieve this, we designed a training course with a core curriculum to be used for our new joiners.

5.2.4 The Approach Was Aligned with Business Objectives and Values

It should seem obvious, but it is unlikely that a new capability or approach will be embraced unless it can meet the company’s objectives and fit with its values. In the case of Innovia, senior managers believed that integrating behavioural science would contribute to the fundamental business objective of developing breakthrough innovation that really made a difference to clients and to the consumer experience. They also saw that it could be a platform for business growth for Innovia. Right from the start, there was clarity that behavioural science could add value.

As Emma, a psychobiologist, said, “think about why you want to use it. What is it for? Use behavioural science when you want non-trivial behaviour changes, such as when you want to develop an innovative product or service.”

It is much easier to use a new approach if it fits with your values. Behavioural science fitted well with the way that Innovia tackled innovation challenges in general: combining the rigorous scientific approach with creativity and using holistic teams to deliver solutions.

Alastair commented that, “when we founded Innovia , it was an article of faith that holistic working is better, but we really had to demonstrate it. In fact, we actually see it in good results all the time.”

Without these conditions, it would have been much more difficult to socialise the discipline into the company.

5.3 How Can These Learnings Be Generalised to Other Companies?

At the same time as our Innovia consultants were working out how to use behavioural science, people in corporations were also facing the same challenge. In 2014, it was still a relatively new approach and people were interested to find out more. By 2018, most people had heard about behavioural science—Kahneman and Tversky’s work had been popularised (Lewis, 2017), Kahneman’s own book, Thinking Fast and Slow, had been top of the bestseller lists (Kahneman , 2012), and Richard Thaler had won a Nobel Prize for behavioural economics.

It wasn’t just Innovia’s employees who had encountered challenges in applying behavioural science at the coalface of business. Many of the challenges faced by other organisations seemed to be similar to those experienced at Innovia. Some departments thought it was simply another way to do what they did.

“Marketing departments can be particularly resistant,” said Geraint. “It looks strange and may seem in conflict with what they already know.”

Rob, a physicist who had spent some time working in a large oil company, found that “engineers can see it as fluffy and irrelevant. Engineers feel like they take rational business decisions and assume people follow systems.”

Habits are hard to break. Departments have tried-and-tested beliefs and approaches. As Tim commented, “these approaches are good, but mostly were developed before we understood how to apply behavioural science to business problems.”

Even those companies that are more open to the idea of using behavioural science had encountered problems. Alex recalled that one company in the pharmaceutical sector had been trying to recruit behavioural scientists but didn’t know the best place to find them. They asked us, “should they be looking for people with a background in research or psychology and if so, what type of psychology?” They had some difficulty in finding the right type of individual with the right skills to fit into the business.

Ben found that his clients were starting to be concerned that there were ‘charlatans’ who say they do behavioural science but in fact did not have qualifications in the discipline—they were claiming to apply behavioural science because it was ‘in vogue’. “It is hard to work out if you are getting value. How do you assess value?”

The biggest challenge that had emerged was where to put behavioural science in an organisation. Who has the remit to embrace and own it?

Alastair thought that, “big companies are often organised in silos and may not get good results unless they can integrate behavioural science across the company.”

One big question is whether behavioural science should be a new function in marketing, or an asset to R&D? Is there a role for behavioural science in the HR department? Is it better suited to the consumer-insights team? Or could it be useful to data scientists? What if it were a separate department that could be a service to other departments? There are clearly pros and cons to all these options.

Tim was concerned about integration. “If it is a separate department, people don’t think it is for them and don’t take responsibility.”

Geraint went a step further. “Perhaps it should be seen as really a methodology rather than a department. In ten years’ time, people will see it as important.”

One theme emerged particularly strongly: the ability of behavioural science to bridge the divide between marketing and R&D. Traditionally, R&D teams develop new products and services usually from a technical perspective. They can be frustrated that marketing teams don’t seem to understand the technology or ask for a new product or service that is technically impossible. Marketing teams are equally frustrated that R&D teams don’t seem to understand what is relevant to consumers and so they make their products too complex to use. In a sense, behavioural scientists can speak both languages: they can provide a systematic look at what is driving behaviour, using a scientific method that technical experts can appreciate, and they can provide insights into the deep underlying motivations behind consumer behaviour that marketing teams find so valuable.

As Geraint reflected “Needing to have a bridge between R&D and marketing is not new. Behavioural science is both behaviour AND science so you can build a bridge that others can’t”.

5.4 When Should You Use Behavioural Science? When Shouldn’t You?

Behavioural science is not suited for all challenges. It does not, and should not, replace well-tried, effective techniques that are already in use. Behavioural science is especially suited to complex problems where other approaches have not been able to go deep enough into the drivers of behaviour. Below are some examples of where behavioural science is appropriate.
  • You are developing a new technology and there is little knowledge of how people might respond. For example, you want to understand how people will interact with autonomous vehicles (see Box 5.1 )

  • You are seeking to break a deeply embedded habit or change a complex behaviour where more conventional approaches have been unsuccessful. For example, you need to persuade people that they should not drive after having an alcoholic drink.

  • You want to change internal behaviours in the organisation and need a more systematic method to diagnose the barriers to implementing a new approach. For example, you are trying to encourage the uptake of a new technology across the entire company that will require new capabilities and different responses.

  • There is a need for a completely fresh perspective and richer understanding to encourage people to think about a challenge in a different and more radical way. This may be even more important when the traditional approach already seems effective, so people just do what they have always done. For example, you need to make boarding a plane a pleasant experience whilst at the same time ensuring that it is quick.

5.5 Summary

The decision of how best to use behavioural science and where the discipline should be in the company will clearly depend on the specific needs of the individual organisation. But to have a chance of success, consider these criteria:
  • Think about what you want to use it for: it is not a panacea and is better for some challenges than others

  • Find a champion within the company (preferably at a senior level) who can ensure that it is integrated, understood, implemented, and embraced

  • Think carefully about what sort of behavioural scientist you need in the corporation: make sure they have a background in the behavioural and psychological sciences that they know how to apply, and that they are credible commercially to colleagues

  • Take the effort to communicate to key stakeholders the value of what it does, how it does it, and how it differs from other tried-and-tested approaches

  • Adapt and integrate behavioural science into existing approaches to ensure both rigour and timeliness. Avoid siloing at all costs because behavioural science really comes into its own in combination with other functions

Box 5.1 Using Behavioural Science for an Innovation Challenge

Innovia Technology has addressed these types of challenge in the context of their approach to breakthrough innovation. Their approach is a simple but intuitive one that can be divided into three broad phases, known in the company as Understand, Explore, Decide (UED).

The Understand phase. Here, the problem is defined, broken down, and reassembled. This is a fuzzy process but is the most critical part of the three phases, and often takes the most time. The aim is to create a framework that encapsulates the insights from the understand phase. This framework helps us to innovate and can be used when we explore solutions. The innovation framework provides a route to creating ideas, and can be a simple model, taxonomy, or a breakdown of the problem into component parts (problem areas). The solar road studs project described in Chap.  1 is a good example of how a behavioural science theory provided a framework from which we could explore solutions.

The Explore phase is designed to open up possibilities. Here, we investigate the problem areas and create ideas to solve them using insights from different situations, companies and people. These ideas are then turned into new concepts to address the real problem defined during the understand phase. At this stage, there may be many different ideas that might result in an effective solution. Behavioural science can be useful to explore the possibilities from a psychological perspective. For example, we ran a programme for Southwest Airlines (discussed in detail in Chap.  7) that was designed to improve the boarding experience. We developed hypotheses based on our knowledge of the psychology of waiting and queuing and how people plan (or don’t plan) ahead. This enabled us to design a wide range of effective solutions that were acceptable and enjoyable to the passengers, but also made the boarding process much quicker.

The Decide phase is when we need to identify uncertainties, remove weak options, and select ideas that have the greatest potential to succeed. There are various techniques for doing this. In simple terms, we are balancing the amount of reward we expect from a potential concept against the risk of developing that concept and finding that it doesn’t work. Using this type of approach, we can quickly categorise interventions into those that have high risk but low reward and so are probably not worth pursuing, those that are low risk and high reward and that we should definitely pursue, those that are low risk and low reward and that we should ignore, and those that are high reward and high risk and that might have potential but will need further exploration.


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Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Helena Rubinstein
    • 1
  1. 1.Innovia Technology LtdCambridgeUK

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