Bending our brains to focus on the way elements interplay, to see both the forest AND the trees

By Misha Kaur

Thursday December 19, 2019

Adobe Stock
Let me ask you a question — look at this picture, and think about what you see. Is that a circle in the middle there?
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If you’re anything like me, it looks kind of like a circle, but wonky and skewed.

Now look at it again, but this time use your hand or a bit of paper to cover up the rest of the image.

Look different? It’s actually a perfect circle.

We see it differently because of how our brains work, and that’s an important principle in systems-led design.

The reason the circle looks wonky is because we’re complex animals, and our brains process information from multiple sources at once. When we look at all the parts of the picture together, the circle looks strange, but when we look at it in isolation we see its true shape. Our brains like parts, not wholes.

What does this mean for systems-led design?

Bending our brains to focus on the way elements interplay is at the heart of systems-led design. I’m a big picture thinker, so I always try to think about how one factor affects another — if we change something over here, how will it change what we do over there? If our desired outcome is XYZ, what are steps A, B and C?

But just because we look at the system as a whole doesn’t mean we can ignore how each element functions on its own. For our design solutions to work across the whole system, each of the component parts needs to do its job too. That’s where behavioural insights comes in.

Behavioural insights is a discipline that seeks to understand what actions we can take on a micro level to change human behaviour. Sometimes called ‘nudge theory’, behavioural insights explores how we can shift attitudes and habits not through rules and regulations, but through understanding why people do what they do.

I think this way of thinking is vital to creating effective systems-led design, so when I came into the role of head of ATO Design, I was excited to bring the ATO Behavioural Insights Unit into the fold. One of the most common questions I get is how the disciplines work together, so I’m keen to lay out why I think the two approaches are so complementary.

Fundamentally, systems-led design is about delivering on the promise of our policy or project objectives. So is behavioural insights.

In systems-led design, we take an end goal — maybe a policy or business objective — and look at the whole environment of factors that will influence our desired outcomes. We then think about how we can influence each of those factors cohesively to create a sustainable solution with minimal impacts.

What that means is that we need to understand how a number of elements influence and interact with human behaviour.

To understand how this works in practice, let’s look at a hypothetical systems design scenario.

The problem with people

Let’s say you want to increase gender diversity in your organisation, because you’ve noticed an imbalance and you want to reflect a wider range of perspectives in the way you do business.

Gender imbalance is a good example to look at when we think about systems-led design, because there are a number of complex elements at play both in terms of what drives (and prevents) diversity in the workforce, and what benefits it has for organisations.

We use targets and quotas to manage gender diversity in a practical sense, but the advantages of a diverse workforce are far more nuanced and complex, whether it’s bringing new ideas to your leadership team or creating a more engaged culture for your workforce. This concept was a focus for me when I worked on diversity for the ACT government — using systems-led thinking to understand the ripple effects diversity has across teams, workforces and organisations.

Similarly, what drives and hinders diversity is a complicated and often systemic interplay of elements. We all know addressing a gender imbalance isn’t as simple as putting up “women wanted” ads and instigating a diversity quota. As a systems-led designer there are a number of issues that you’d want to explore to start developing a comprehensive solution to increase female participation in your workforce.

Does your culture support women? Do women have a positive experience at your agency? Do you have flexible work arrangements for working mothers? What’s your maternity leave like?

There are probably plenty of organisations that feel they’ve addressed these issues, but still struggle with a gender-imbalanced workforce. You’ve created an environment that should meet the needs of female workers — so why aren’t you recruiting any?

The short answer is people can’t be counted on to make rational decisions.

This is something behavioural insights professionals know well. As systems-led designers we try and understand the complexity of cause and effect, but when you throw humans into the mix sometimes those effects can be pretty unpredictable.

For example, what we forgot about in our hypothetical scenario is human bias. Unfortunately, in some areas of the workforce gender and other discrimination still interferes with our policy outcomes. How do we fix this? Behavioural insights.

That’s exactly what the Victorian Department of Treasury and Finance did in 2015. To avoid discrimination of any kind in their recruitment processes, they de-identified all resumes they received. That way gender, race, age and other social factors wouldn’t play into their selection decisions.

The result? Well, prior to the policy being implemented the agency was 33% more likely to hire men. Afterwards they were 8% more likely to hire women.

Looking at the numbers is a pretty simplistic (and sometimes not entirely accurate) measure, and doesn’t reflect those wider system impacts we know occur as a result of increased diversity. But for the purposes of a case study, it’s a good indicator of how a simple and cost-effective behavioural insights solution can create a marked difference.

Of course in order to be truly effective, changes like these need to be part of a broader systems-led approach, to address those complicated and interwoven factors that influence policy outcomes. But this example shows how crucial it is that we understand human behaviour when we’re implementing our solutions.

One way of looking at behavioural insights is that it’s just systems-led design on a one-to-one scale.

Just as systems-led design focuses on how a range of elements might help or hinder our end goal, behavioural insights looks at how various psychological and social determinants will influence a person’s decision making. And after all, what is a system but a tapestry of people and ideas?

Both behavioural insights and systems-led design share one goal, which is to achieve desired policy outcomes and implement solutions that work. By adopting both approaches you can ensure your initiatives work on both a macro and micro scale.

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