Knowledge is not Enough

I try and go grocery shopping often.  About every third time I pull into the parking lot, I witness a car park into a disabled person spot, no sticker or marker indicating the individual had any disabilities, and a perfectly healthy person exits the vehicle.  My inner optimist always suggests that perhaps the person was unaware of the designation.  Maybe they simply didn’t notice the handicap sign.  A second look, however, reveals that the sign couldn’t be more obvious.   The person knows that this is not acceptable, yet he/she does it anyway. 

Over time, my irritation builds until I see this simple solution on my trip to South Africa that prevents unauthorized vehicles from using the spot.  

 It speaks to the fact that people need an incentive IN ADDITION to knowledge in order to change behavior.  A archived Freakononmics podcast pointed out that this is a foundational principal in economics that explains a lot of the irrational behavior we see in societies. For example, why do Europeans smoke cigarettes in much higher numbers than in the United States? They have access to the same information about the dangers of smoking yet their behavior does not reflect it.

Knowledge is not enough

I frequently train project management to the international development sector.  We use real projects as samples in our activities to take high level concepts and apply them to practical scenarios.  In nearly every sample project, teams include “training” in order to change behavior of the beneficiary groups.  We assume that people will change their practices only if they knew they were living on the flood plain, only if they knew that breast milk was healthy for a child, only if they knew that unprotected sex can lead to STI’s.  At this point in our discussion, I often ask the group to raise their hands if they know that consuming sweets (or desserts/processed food/alcohol etc.) is not healthy for you.  Most, if not all, raise their hands.  Then I ask, how many of you still consume sweets (or desserts/processed food/alcohol etc.)?  Rarely does a hand go down.  So, knowledge, or lack thereof, is not the real problem here.

Lessons for Leadership

In our consulting, we see this as part of the many problems the leaders face within organizations.  They are often good at communicating a new vision, the reason for a re-structuring, or the value of project management.  However, little change occurs in the staff.  Why? Because staff often lack an incentive to comply to new policies, adhere to new structures, or use new templates.  It simply is not enough to provide information; organizations need to include real incentives.  Here are a couple of suggestions:

  1. Including indicators of success and requiring that teams report on progress
  2. Providing rewards for good project management, fully following policies or using tools
  3. Prevent deviant behavior by calling it out.  Or, simply prevent the ability to deviate such as only accepting a report if it was submitted on your online platform rather than in email.

In your work

Incentives can be good or bad.  Americans smoke less than Europeans not because they are better consumers of information (sorry Yankees), but because there is a huge government tax on every pack that dis-incentivizes the purchase. 

These lessons should not only be for leaders, but also included in project design.  Before you include training as your solution in your project, ask yourself this critical question: “Even if they knew this was bad/knew how to do this, what is their incentive to do X?”  By focusing on incentives in addition to capacity or knowledge development, I can guarantee you’ll have more effective outcomes.