Behavioural Science is a rapidly expanding field and everyday new research is being developed in academia, tested and implemented by practitioners in financial organisation, development agencies, government ‘nudge’ units and more. This interview is part of a series interviewing prominent people in the field. And in today's interview the answers are provided by Ali Fenwick! Ali is the professor of organizational behaviour and innovation at the Hult International Business School and is the founder and managing partner of LEAD TCM&L. He specializes in the application of behavioural interventions for business improvement, government policy design, communication effectiveness, talent management, mobile application design, and psychographic profiling and has a vast experience in management consulting.
Who or what got you into behavioural science?
I have always been interested in human performance - the potential we have as human beings both physically as well as mentally. At the age of 9, I started doing gymnastics which I continued doing till I was 16. In these 7 years, I learned about the power of mindset, effort, physical endurance, growth, sacrifice, and the importance of environment to reach your potential. These learnings since then have fascinated me and also my love for behavioral science.
I have dedicated much of my academic work (and to some extent also professional work) to finding and developing behavioural interventions and strategies that help healthy people improve their overall performance as well as their well-being. I believe that there are a lot of opportunities and space to apply psychology in a non-clinical setting which can benefit people, businesses, and even society at large. I am particularly interested in how behavior and performance can be influenced positively at work, as we spend so much time of our lives in the workplace. The nature of work is changing, and so are people’s expectations, needs, and beliefs about work as well. These times ask for new approaches, especially for those which can tap into the mindset changes currently taking place across different generations in the workplace.
What is the accomplishment you are proudest of as a Behavioural scientist?
Well, I guess one of the proudest moments was getting my PhD. I compare this feeling with “getting married with yourself”… I know it sounds completely off.. but honestly that’s how it felt. A moment in time you never forget and also something you need to commit to by yourself. From a professional standpoint, setting up one of the first behavioral economics firms of its time (est. 2011) and being a trend-setter of behavioral science in business with our Behavioral Economics 2.0 Summit in 2017 are definitely proud moments I can look back on together with my team.
If you weren’t a behavioural scientist, what would you be doing? I love this question. I think I would have been a behavioral scientist! Let me explain. I think it’s really important to continuously reinvent yourself. Never become complacent in what you do or become too attached to the professional identities you latch onto. Today’s world is too volatile and complex for you to maintain a stable career path. I compare my career path to an s-curve1. Re-inventing yourself with the times, daring to let go and learn something new, and finding ways to push yourself to new highs. I’ve taken on various jobs throughout my career from Japanese translation and interpretation to being a Marketing Director for a Telco for 4 years, Global Head of Sales and Marketing for a Biotech company for 9 years, and finally running my own Behavioral Science Company and working in Higher Education and Research for the past 9 years. Who knows what will happen next! I let my inner voice guide me and trust that whatever I do is linked to a higher purpose. So, coming back to your question, what I would be doing if I wasn’t a behavioral scientist, my answer is: a behavioral scientist as that inner voice would lead me to it eventually. Hope it makes sense now :).
How do you apply behavioural science in your personal life? In so many ways. From sports (mental performance, goal-setting, visualization), to my relationship (persuasion and influence), with my friends (pro-social behavior and establishing a strong group identity), and in my work (get to experiment a lot on people… ethically of course!). Behavioral science has also helped me during the pandemic to develop new habits and be more effective in the digital space which has led to some mini successes the past months.
With all your experience, what skills would you say are needed to be a behavioural scientist? Are there any recommendations you would make? Besides all the typical skills you can think of that are needed to be a behavioral scientist (e.g. technical skills, interest in behavior), I want to highlight three specific things I think are absolutely crucial!
Develop an experimental mindset. Developing an experimental mindset is paramount if you want to become a successful behavioral scientist. Always challenging what you see and never take for granted what you know. Compared to yesterday, today is already a new world. So, make sure to train yourself to keep a critical mind about things and be open to new experiences, encounters, and knowledge (even when these things challenge your sense of self). See you brain as the iOS system of your body. Once in a while it needs a thorough update, so make sure to not forget to click on the update button. It helps you improve your thinking and also improves your chances of success in today’s world.
Be yourself. Sometimes being yourself means being different. That’s absolutely fine. People pay attention to things that stick out. Just make sure you do it in a way that people will remember you favorably. That being said, be authentic! This is one of your biggest strengths in life (if you learn how to own it). People will accept you for who you are, so never compromise on being yourself… how else can you bring your whole self to work and how else can you provide your best service to society! Remember, “Go where you are celebrated, not where you are tolerated!”. Too often I see people trying to ‘fit’ in. What a waste of human potential when that happens!
Think creatively. Creativity and innovation are core to growth in today’s business world. And yes, even the behavioral scientist with its ontological perspective to the world, has to be creative. The sad truth is, that most of us are actually not that creative. I have developed a simulation to test for creative thinking skills in organizations and in the last 9 years of running this simulation, the data shows that our ability to think creatively (e.g. coming up with original ideas) is extremely low (even though most of us want to believe that we are more creative than the average Jo). The way most of us have been educated in our formative years plays a crucial role in this deficiency. Nevertheless, creative thinking is an important skill for the behavioral scientist, especially when you have to decide how to approach a problem or how to translate your insights into solutions. The good news about creative thinking is, with proper training, you can become increasingly better at it. If you want to stand out and be successful as a behavioral scientist, then besides critical thinking and analysis, master creative thinking as well.
How do you think behavioural science will develop (in the next 10 years)? I think there is a lot to be said about the future of behavior science. There are many avenues of research to be explored and many new Behavioral Science-infused applications to be developed. Here is a list of both from my perspective:
Fields of Research:
The application of Behavioral Science research outside of the Anglo-Saxon context. A lot of our work at LEAD TCM&L™ has focused on re-evaluating / re-testing existing nudges in different (cultural) environments. And in the past years we have found some fascinating stuff. There is so much scientific work to be done in this area.
The application of Behavioral Science in the Digital Space. Offline nudges are not always equally effective in the online world. So, there is still a lot to be learned about applying nudges in the digital environment. I am currently on the board of a couple of mobile app and online platform companies helping them to develop a digital nudge/behavioral science strategy. Behavioral science ties in very well with data science and this relationship will only grow stronger in the years to come. With the advent of machine learning and big data analytics, behavioral scientists will have access to more data than ever before and also new sampling techniques providing new approaches to behavioral investigation. One specific example is the utilization of heterogenous sampling techniques to develop automated and tailored nudges. Really fascinating research and I expect this to be one of the booming fields of investigation and application in the years to come (including all the ethical considerations that come with it!).
The application of Behavioral Science in Business. The final point I want to mention is the growing trend of behavioral science in business, specifically people management, marketing and product development. Living in a world which is rapidly changing, ambiguous, and uncertain, behavioral science provides a window to really understand what drives people and performance. And in many situations supersedes strategy as a necessary business acumen.
Which other behavioural scientists would you love to read an interview by?
Great question. I don’t want to mention any specific names, rather I want to propose some conditions for selecting future interviewees. With this, I want to echo some of voices that I have heard recently on social media regarding role modelling in the BE field. Most of the behavioral scientists that people speak about share common characteristics: 1. male, 2. Caucasian, and 3. aged 40 or above. And truth be told… I also fit this stereotype! I would therefore be very interested to read more interviews from non-stereotypical behavioral scientist heroes having made a scientific or professional contribution to the field… Our community needs more diverse role models to attract fresh talent to, and stimulate new thinking within, the field of behavioral science.
Thank you so much for taking the time to write down these amazing answers Ali. I think you're right, it's time to move things away from a certain type of person that always gets interviewed, and give everyone, regardless of race, age and gender a voice. I think I've been doing pretty well on the latter, but there is much work to be done!
As I said before, this interview is part of a larger series which can also be found here on the blog. Make sure you don't miss any of those, nor any of the upcoming interviews! Moreover, this happens to be interview number 50 (!!!), so there'll be a massive summary article coming up this week. Keep your eye on Money on the Mind!
 S-curves reflect a natural growth curve common to human and organizational systems: starting up, learning, flourishing, and eventual declining.