Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Alligators in the Board Room

By: Christina Luppi, Manager, Sentient Decision Science

This post was originally published on the Sentient Decision Science Blog.

“Command the Board Room” is the theme at TMRE 2016. A lofty goal, perhaps. But maybe not so lofty if you’re equipped with the right insights.

Soon Yu, TMRE 2016’s chairperson, immediately endeared himself to the audience by dubbing himself the “biggest failure” in the ballroom. He cited multiple tanked businesses, several career restarts, and a credit score of 300 to support the claim. Why so eager to have his failures be known? To help people better understand how they can succeed.


“Insights teams need to play a critical role in the board room,” Yu stressed. When decision makers want to know why big ideas fail, they find the answer is often human.

Even when the desirability is validated, when the concepts are good and the budgets are excellent, ideas can bomb because of people.

People run into walls of fear when approached with a new idea, said Yu. Next, they run into walls of apathy because so many things are competing for their interest. Lastly, they run into walls of disbelief and are desperate for proof.

“Ideas don’t sell themselves,” Yu explained. “You can’t just have the right content. It requires us becoming champions in the board room. Those walls are human dynamics and exist even with the right content.”

The walls Yu mentioned aren’t about what is right and wrong, they’re emotional barriers all marketers have to deal with at some point. Insights help us break through.


TMRE keynote speaker Zoe Chance left corporate marketing to get her PhD because she wanted to study the complexities of decision making. Really, frustration in the field made her determined to help people make research-based decisions that make sense, rather than see them go with their gut.
What she found is that marketers actually need to suck it up and learn to work better with the board members who make gut decisions—that’s just who we are as a species. Humans are ruled by “alligator psychology,” she noted.

Something we know as System 1 thinking.

“I refer to [System 1 and System 2] as the ‘alligator brain’ and the ‘court,'” Chance explained. “System 1 is unconscious, fast— an automatic decision maker. We only imagine the court is making more decisions than it is.”

Rather than trying to force feed data down the throats of people who won’t swallow, Chance suggested researchers better understand the emotional motivations of our System 1 brains.

She outlined five key forces of influence:

·         Labeling: Giving a name to behavior you want to encourage or discourage.
·         Ease: Ease of use is a more powerful motivator than even pleasure. This is a principle practiced to perfection by companies like Amazon and Uber.
·         Attention: Moments of truth, open loops, and the Zeigarnik effect.
·         Scarcity: Operates through loss aversion.
·         “Hot potato”: When faced with resistance, instead of pushing, hand back a problem to solve.
Notice the acronym? “If you’re going to walk an alligator, it helps to have a LEASH,” Chance said with a smile.


Of course, alligators can be lazy. They sometimes need persuading to bite.

Stephen Dubner, best-selling author of Freakonomics and SuperFreakonomics talked about the power of incentives in marketing.

“Never underestimate the power of free. It doesn’t matter how much of something somebody’s got, how much they’re worth; the alligator part of our brain… will just zap at it.”

To illustrate, Dubner told a story of how the world-renowned Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles dealt with a particular problem, a big problem. Doctors were not washing their hands.

Yes, really.

The issue wasn’t a matter of education—doctors know the science and danger of bacteria—it was a matter of communication. How do you tell medical professionals they must do something they already know they must do?

The hospital tried incentivizing a hand washing program with Starbucks gift cards. And the wealthy MDs snapped them up as though they couldn’t afford their own coffee.

“They turned a life and death problem into a game they wanted to play,” said Dubner. But the card didn’t raise the overall rate of hand washing.

“Data can get you at the ‘what’ pretty easily, and the ‘what’ didn’t work. The ‘why’ is complicated.”
Why gets into psychology, sometimes even into religion. It also delves into the subconscious. What doctors would admit they don’t wash their hands in a hospital?

“Self-reported data is close to worthless,” said Dubner. “This is why we need to know not what people are telling you they will do; we need to get data about what they actually will do.”

Eventually, the board at Cedars-Sinai created graphic images of the bacteria found on their own hands and placed the image on every computer screen saver at Cedars-Sinai. By showing doctors the danger and triggering an emotional response, the research team got the hand-washing rate up to 100-percent almost overnight.

“If that’s the way the human brain works, let’s find a way to take advantage of that and exploit it for some good,” Dubner concluded.


In that light, understanding alligator brain actually sounds pretty rational.

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