Defaults, Deviation, Blame & Innovation



In my past articles I’ve been talking about satisficing and regret – two topics quite linked to each other, but not always in the way you think they might be. One way to satisfice is to go with the default option, whatever the default option may be. The argument with the default option is that everyone else (well, at least most people) is also doing it. This is the argument for buying into the market leader, performing an action that everyone else is doing, and just following the crowd. The argument is “that’s just what you do”.

 

Defaults are very strong mechanisms. They take away the requirement to think for yourself. And a lot of people don’t want to think for themselves, because that is hard and resource intensive. If you hold down a fulltime job and a family, you will not have the time or cognitive resources left to do a lot of research on every single decision. Sometimes going with the flow (the default) is a lot easier – because it saves so much time and cognitive strain. Also, I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but if you want to deviate from the default, it’s up to you, the individual, to make your case. Why are you deviating? Do you think you know better than a whole crowd of people? And this is also where regret comes in. If you choosing to deviate from the default leads you to suboptimal outcome, very often, your environment will argue that that is your fault. And you might even think that’s your fault and that you should have just gone with the default – often the easier route. There is regret. But only if it doesn’t pan out. But even if it does pan out – think of success in alternative career choices – a lot of people in your environment may fail to understand why you chose to break away from the “normal” career path. It is entirely possible that choosing to deviate from the default can lead to being ostracized.

 

How is this linked to blame and innovation? Well, according to Rory Sutherland, who gave an excellent keynote during the SPUDM conference, one naturally follows the other. He gave two examples: Before COVID-19, no one really considered video-calling (zoom, skype, teams) as a viable way of communicating and hosting meetings. People would continue to make long-haul journeys to get to a single meeting. To fly to a different country for a day or so is what quite a lot of “business people” deemed normal. However, video-calling became the only real means of communicating after the pandemic struck. Now, after all of this, a lot of businesses (in every shape or form) are considering continuing this means of communicating, even when the pandemic ends (if it ever does) or are at least adopting a hybrid model. Travelling and face-to-face meetings where the default and video-calling was this weird alternative. Now roles have been reversed. The second example relied on airports, and the efficiency of travel. Now you need to know that there’s several airports in London, Heathrow being the biggest one. Issue is, travelling to Heathrow is often a nightmare. There’s several other airports in London (it has like five airports) which are easier to reach depending on where in the area you live. However, flying from Heathrow was always offered as the default and if you wanted to fly from a different airport you’d have to indicate this as such. Now imagine you’re an assistant to someone. Say you’re Rory’s assistant. If you book Rory onto a Heathrow flight, which is the default, and the flight gets delayed or cancelled, well, no one is going to blame you. You can write an angry letter to management or whomever, but no one is going to question your capabilities as an assistant. Now imagine the same happens with a flight from Gatwick. Gatwick is not the default and you made the choice to deviate and now Rory is late to his meeting. Your choice has caused Rory additional stress, or might have even cost him an important meeting or client deal/relationship. I wouldn’t be looking forward to that annual review, would you? What we can see here is clear: innovation through deviation is much more easily accepted once the default becomes impossible to maintain. And when you deviate simply because of efficiency reasons, whereas the default would still be available, it’s your neck on the line if something goes wrong.


 

You don’t need to prove that the default is ineffective, that of itself is not enough to reject a norm. You need to prove that it is ineffective and that your solution is much more effective, as well as easy to apply, with almost non-existing chances of failure. Those are quite a few requirements for increasing efficiency. Also known as innovation. This, to me, is such a paradox. Innovation is often associated with deviating from the default. I’m not sure it’s entirely captured by its definition, but somehow I feel like it would be. A lot of companies strive for innovation. However, on the individual level, if you propose deviation from the default, you have to bring forth a plethora of proof that your idea would work, as well as execute it well. Because if it doesn’t work, you’ve got some explaining to do. Even if it does work: if it’s too difficult to implement, or is too difficult to keep up, or is counterintuitive, or you can’t get enough people onboard or to continue working with it, or any combination of these, your idea will (likely) still fail. And if this is the case, there might be consequences to that failure. Also, knowing behavioural science, there’s lots of reasons, human factors, for why something wouldn’t work in one setting, and might work great in another. Can you imagine trying to explain all the possible scenarios in which your idea would have worked had the right things been in place to a board of management? I didn’t write this article with a clear recommendation or idea in mind. I’m afraid I’d make for a terrible business consultant in the area of innovation. It’s just that those examples given by Rory really stuck with me. And it’s interesting how organisations’ incentives and those of their employees are so stacked against each other, out of fear of consequences. Something to think about if you truly want to innovate. Because I don’t think innovation is a very clean cut process. I think innovation comes from critically questioning the defaults as they are. Whether we do that as company managers, employees or just as individuals trying to live our best lives. You cannot blame your employees for trying to promote innovation, even if it doesn't work, if your entire business strategy revoles around innovation. You also cannot blame the majority if you don’t like your life after having continuously chosen the default option.


Always question the default.

Behavioural Science