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Engineering behavioural change

Successful infrastructure investment requires the understanding and influence of behaviour as much as the development of assets, say Craig McMaster and Garry Sanderson.

Environmental upheaval, technological revolution, economic pressures and shifting customer expectations mean the challenge faced by our modern infrastructure sector has never been more complex. In the UK, the need for substantive improvement in our infrastructure efficiency and productivity is evident, driving the development of the Project 13 initiative. 

This aims to deliver major capital infrastructure outcomes more efficiently, collaboratively and innovatively. Similar calls for change in the 1994 Latham and 1998 Egan reports looked at many of the challenges Project 13 seeks to resolve. Given that, arguably, these initiatives left no lasting legacy, how can Project 13 deliver sustainable change?  

Decades working within alliances as the engineer, integrator, programme manager or contractor gives us a unique perspective and we strongly support the core Project 13 themes. We also firmly believe in the importance of behavioural change, underpinned and catalysed by the use of behavioural insights. Great change is needed in the infrastructure sector and we believe it is the behaviours adopted by people within the industry that will underpin the success of Project 13. 

Recently, the application of evidence-based behavioural insights to influence policy decisions has gained significant traction. The UK Behavioural Insights Team was established in 2010 to improve government policy and services, a model now followed by numerous countries. Its work is founded on behavioural economics, drawing on economics, psychology and neuroscience to focus on how we make choices and judgements. Behavioural economists seek to understand why people do the things they do, rather than the things they say they’ll do.

"Behavioural economists seek to understand why people do the things they do, rather than the things they say they'll do."

We are all unconsciously influenced by internal biases and external environmental cues, affecting our judgements and actions. Our choices aren’t always ‘economically rational’ – such as paying for expensive, unused gym memberships, yet failing to save for retirement. We may think our choices are based on careful thought processes, but in reality we choose based on our subjective perception of options and how we feel about them.

Behavioural insights can help organisations positively engage their people with change. This engagement relies on recognising that people are implicitly risk and loss averse. Through natural selection, these biases were coded into our thought processes as we evolved to survive in threatening environments. Change initiatives trigger these Darwinian responses in individuals. Overcoming the inertia resulting from perceived personal risk requires understanding and modification of the environment. The power of behavioural insights can be utilised to influence positive change in the delivery of UK infrastructure.

Traditional change processes involve a roll-out of a new ‘initiative’ accompanied by messaging from management intended to explain how and why it has to be done. However, leadership attention is usually concentrated at the ‘exciting’ front end of any strategy doing little to create the right environment for meaningful, sustainable change. The right approach empowers people to make their own choices, within an environment that has been carefully designed to influence and reinforce action in the desired direction.

"Engineers are uniquely placed to capitalise as much on behavioural insights as on their problem-solving mindsets. In many cases, they are well positioned to understand, influence and balance behaviour across multiple systems." 

Engineers are uniquely placed to capitalise as much on behavioural insights as on their problem-solving mindsets. In many cases, they are well positioned to understand, influence and balance behaviour across multiple systems – technical, environmental, commercial, political and societal. 

It is of fundamental importance that engineers expand their influence across the people systems. Engineers are not often renowned for their ‘touchy feely’ capabilities, yet there is a great opportunity for engineers to influence the people, political and societal aspects relating to infrastructure. An evidence-based behavioural approach can help to bridge the gap between ‘engineering assets’ and ‘engineering behavioural change’. 

We have identified three relevant hypotheses to support the Project 13 agenda:

  • Performance = Capability + Behaviour

This simple equation drives an awareness of the human aspects of delivering any significant outcome through the collaborative efforts of people, in a dynamic environment. Why would individuals do things differently if nothing has really changed in their environment? Without this clarity we cannot expect to achieve sustainable change at the coalface.

Project 13 is different from its predecessor initiatives in this area. Firstly, it advocates change in infrastructure delivery models and their procurement. Secondly, it is a client-driven movement, rather than a supply chain or industry group initiative. This creates the potential for the strong behavioural forces of peer comparison and social pressure to help accelerate change.

  • Digital transformation and behavioural transformation are two sides of the same coin

The world is undergoing rapid digital transformation. Applications that should theoretically be improving our lives are claiming a growing percentage of our already precious attention. Often this benefits those who have captured our attention more than it benefits us. 

Project 13 has had digital transformation at its heart from the outset and all will be aware of the fast pace of development of data technology in the infrastructure sector, particularly BIM. An equal level of effort must be put in to creating the environment in which these technologies are adopted and used to their maximum benefit.

  • Commercial incentives are from Mars and motivation is from Venus

Organisations follow strategies, interacting through commercial mechanisms based on rational processes. People, however, are influenced by their environment to make choices based on what they feel. Commercial incentives can drive organisations to perform. People are motivated by meaning, autonomy and an environment where the positive and negative consequences of actions are clear and consistent. These two worlds need to be carefully interconnected as Project 13 develops approaches to commercial incentives. 

"Project 13 will only be realised if the behaviours within the infrastructure sector also change. These changes must happen by design, through a rigorous and evidence-based approach."

In support of Project 13, we are seeking to test these hypotheses through engagement with our clients, partners and others working in this field. Our industry is founded upon the ‘hard mechanics’ of things like engineering, construction, contracts and safety statistics. To fully embrace a different future, we must accept that behavioural change is also essential. The necessary efficiency improvements identified through Project 13 will only be realised if the behaviours within the infrastructure sector also change. However, as with delivering any improved system, these behavioural changes must happen by design, through a rigorous and evidence-based approach.

Stantec and Visualyze are actively engaging across the infrastructure sector to promote the importance of behavioural change. We welcome the vision of Project 13 and encourage others to join our conversation as we transform our sector for the 21st century. 

Craig McMaster is a director at Stantec and Garry Sanderson is founder and managing director of Visualyze.