Good News! Everything Matters!

I am badly remiss for not heartily, vigorously, unabashedly endorsing for your immediate and intense attention the relatively new Nudge, by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein. I must admit I’ve been enamored of late with the following from former PepsiCo CEO Roger Enrico, “Beware of the tyranny of making Small Changes to Small Things. Rather, make Big Changes to Big Things.” Which is odd, given that it goes against the grain of “look for the little levers,” which was my signature approach to implementation for years and years—and the centerpiece of my 1977 dissertation.

Well, I’ve come full circle. The hell with the big stuff (most of which most of us can’t do anyway), let’s seek out the little levers—with very high impact. Now along comes Nudge (fabulous title), which chronicles such an approach, digesting in a readable (entertaining, actually) fashion three decades of research in what’s called “behavioral economics.” Don’t be put off by the term that sounds like typical economists’ gibberish. (To me, anyway.)

The point is that if you put the good stuff (fruit, say) before the bad stuff (high-carb goop) in a cafeteria display line, you’d be amazed at the impact—e.g., a hundred diet books’ worth.

As Mssrs Thaler and Sunstein say, “everything matters”—and nothing is neutral. They even give a lovely, not-like-an-economist title for conscious practitioners of this art:

“Choice architects.”

The book is loaded with practical examples of enormous behavioral changes that stem from subtle manipulation of wee levers. (I’ve long argued that the manipulation of physical configuration is the most powerful more or less invisible tool in a manager’s arsenal—put the chief designer’s office next to the CEO’s office—and watch a thousand people become obsessed with design more or less overnight.)

It is indeed “manipulation” (the authors discuss this at length), but then everything a manager does is manipulative!

At any rate, the book is well worth a careful read. At one level its principal thesis is obvious (except, as the authors point out, for economists who are obsessed with the mythical “rational man,” of which there is none on earth), but the power of the ceaseless examples is likely, I think and hope, to grab your attention.

(One powerful attraction, hinted at above, is that it empowers “lower level” managers—who in fact actually have a boatload/supertanker-full of “little levers” at their command—talk about empowering! It simultaneously deprives them of their standard “powerless” excuse.)