A small nudge to create stunning team results

Could you boost your team’s creative thinking just by passing around warm mugs of tea?

Responsible use of “nudges” – subtle interventions that guide choices without restricting them – can be the key to opening up creativity, innovation and great performance levels to individuals and ultimately organizations.

We set up these ideas in two recent blog posts (here and here) about the technique of nudging to influence behavior and propel action. To demonstrate how subtle nudges can have remarkable results, we employed the concept of priming, bringing decision-makers into the right mindset for making a particular decision through a nudge.

During a three-day gathering of 150-plus senior executives at the McKinsey Executive Leadership Program in Australia, we put it to the test.

We prepared a nudging experiment for the audience before we introduced participants to the ideas around the predictable irrationality of humans and the unconscious biases we carry, as well as the nudging method.

The conference organizer, who was in on the experiment, then came on stage and informed the executives their help was needed to develop the leadership program further.

We split the executives into two groups, and each group was asked to work in pairs to develop ideas for the 2019 Executive Leadership Program for 10 minutes. We considered the groups equally talented and motivated with a similar intrinsic enthusiasm. But each received different approaches to their instructions, and we also changed their environment.

Group One received a warm, welcoming appeal: A blue paper “Hello!” greeting, the message of “We need your help” and ended with a “Thank you.” They were handed warm tea or coffee to drink and were encouraged to offer drinks to others as well. These executives were asked to put individual ideas on post-it notes using colored pencils.

Group Two members received bureaucratic instructions, emphasizing to “Please adhere to these instructions during the session on ideation” and that “You should ensure you are properly hydrated during the session.” These executives were given white-lined paper to write ideas “clearly listed and numbered on the page.” They were served ice water.

The results: The positively primed Group One developed 70 completely new ideas that covered new territories, more than twice the 32 fresh ideas of Group Two, whose members mainly focused on structural or logistical improvements.

Specifically, Group One suggested additional innovative speakers and innovative program formats. One pair suggested holding a post-apocalytic simulation for teams; another recommended an outdoor team-building activity such as a hike or water rafting. A third proposed that participants face a real business challenge, during which teams would run a business and provide feedback on the final day.

Group Two’s recommendations were more mundane, including not scheduling too many speakers too quickly during the program, making sure breakfast and lunch were put on the agenda, and ensuring that teleconferences had tech support.

After discovering they had been guinea pigs, participants were stunned and fascinated by the outcomes. “The neuroscience of the change session blew me away,” said one executive, echoing raves from others. Another executive exclaimed, “I was having so much fun…the conversation and our crazy ideas kept flowing.”

Based on the experiment and the different outcomes, we drew these key learnings:

  1. Even the most seasoned business professional can benefit from the positive effects of nudging, in our case “priming.”
  2. Small changes in stimuli/environment can lead to appreciable differences in outcomes, on records in our case, of a factor of 2x.
  3. Organizations are leaving potential insights and impact on the table by ignoring positive nudges and the differing environments and elements that can foster greater creativity.

Priming is just one nudge that can influence behaviors. McKinsey maintains a database of 80-plus nudges and 150-plus interventions we can customize.

In a world where organizational innovation, creativity and agility are key to long-term performance, a unique approach to problem-solving is crucial for maintaining competitiveness in the future. If you’re interested in learning more, give us a nudge.

The team would like to thank Mike Vierow and the Australia and New Zealand Executive Leadership Program Team for including the session into their agenda.

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