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Interview with Prakash Sharma



Behavioural Science is a rapidly expanding field and everyday new research is being developed in academia, tested and implemented by practitioners in financial organisations, 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 Prakash Sharma.


Prakash is the Co-founder of 1001 Stories, an India based Consultancy that uses Context Architecture and Behavioural Science to solve Business problems. He is also the founding member and current president of Diversifi Global, an international alliance of 20+ applied Behavioural Science companies from Lat Am, US, Europe and APAC. The Diversifi Global organization works on solving multi-nation behavioural problems across geographies and cultures. Prakash’s expertise lies in solving behavioural problems in private and public domains like E-Commerce, Q- commerce, Edu-Tech, BFSI, People engagement and Societal Behaviour Change in India and abroad. His work is influenced by an appreciation of contextual and cultural nuances in the population in which he is trying to introduce behaviour change.



 


How did you get into behavioural science?

Here’s the story - I was born in India and I was a good student in school. What this means is that statistically the likelihood that I take up science as a subject, do engineering and then I top it off with an MBA is very high. If you're good in studies, that's your typical path. Which is why, long story short, I did my engineering degree and then my MBA from the best colleges in the country. I wasn’t even aware that the context of me being in a particular country, in a particular era, with a particular kind of mentor is what had moved me towards these choices.


But how does that lead to behavioural science?

Well, I did have a lot of friends who took up Psychology. I would ask them lots of questions when I would meet them because it was very interesting to me. Funnily, they never asked me about diodes, transistor or Fourier series. Anyways, the knowledge I got from these discussions kind of stuck with me.


A few years later I went to the U.S. as a programmer. And through some turn of events, I took up the role of a coordinator (sort of a manager). But this was a role where one can’t reward or punish people, and yet must get the job done. That was a very interesting situation for me to be in – coordinating between Americans, Germans, Indians and a few Latinos. How do you get people to do things for you? What is the incentive for them? You can't promote them. You can't punish them. There's no need for them to listen to you at all. My Programming training kicked in – I tried to make it all systems and process driven. It didn’t work. I realised very quickly that people are not computers. You can't program people. Same inputs, same people, different context, different output!


And as I was going through that challenge in my professional life, my engineering plus programming training kicked in again - let’s now try approach number two. I started to break down the problems into the simplest components and found they kept pointing to a few basic items - perception, attitudes and decoding how people assign ‘value’. I also discovered relevant knowledge in the form of the Netflix Manifesto and later, Project Oxygen of Google. They were about management and team dynamics. I read them, started doing experiments with the team.


As you can see, it wasn’t like I had a plan to get into Behavioural Science. I was just trying to get things done. I was trying to get people to respond to me. And after a couple of years in the U.S. when I got back to India, I realized my language had changed. My friends were talking about innovation, blockchain and disruption. And I was talking about systemic problems, biases, intrinsic motivations, framing etc. My thinking had become contextual and human mind driven. Being young allows you to dream. And that's how, one day, I and my co-founder, Reshma decided to start 1001 Stories, a consultancy to solve business problems using Context and Behavioural Science.



 


What is the thing that you are proudest of so far as a behavioural scientist?

There’s always joy in designing a new chocolate for India or helping another Client with a 12% increase in conversion, while solving a 25 years old problem that has bothered a third Client. But I feel the proudest at being of help to my co-founder, Reshma Tonse, when she designed Context Architecture. We started our work in a crazily complex nation, which today has the largest population in the world. Context is central to the kind of problems we are trying to solve. We are very, very aware of it and believe in it wholeheartedly. The challenge in the beginning was this - how do you make context usable?  What is the meaning of content? Can you break context into basic elements? Can it be studied? And can you then find interventions to affect different elements of the context?


Thus began a multi – year long exercise, led by Reshma, whose end result is Context Architecture. I was around during all those discussions and experiments, so I'm a part of it too. But she would have come up it anyways, with or without me being there. I'm just glad that I was able to be a part of it, that I was able to work with her in crafting that understanding. It is pride mixed with gratefulness for the opportunity the Universe gave me.


So what is it that you still want to achieve?

We've worked on a variety of Projects and Clients in BFSI, E-Commerce, Edu-Tech, Q-Commerce, FMCG, Social Change, Consumer Goods and so on. There’s no I wish when it comes to projects.


Now, the one thing that I really am looking forward to is to find a way to spread Context Architecture around the world. To make it understood, decoded, taught and practised. To be able to create that kind of a world in the next 10-20 years would be wonderful.



What do you think would have happened if you never found behavioural science?

I am a Trekkie. So your question makes me wonder a little about a Mirror Universe where there’s a version of me who never found Behavioural Science.


Now when it comes to this particular Universe, looking back at my life journey I get a strong feeling that I would have ended up somewhere here, around the periphery of this kind of a world.



Do you apply any behavioural science to your own life?

I do use it time to time – to control my procrastination or to remind myself that I do not have full contextual awareness of the other person and hence I should first try to understand, not judge.


Having said that, when I see something stand out in a pattern, I take it as a sign from the universe. I know it's just a lovely coincidence that the Uber cab number ended in 314, my Engineering College Hostel room number. I work with human behaviour. And yet, I want to believe the Universe is telling me something.


Once you understand yourself as a human being, you cannot deny yourself your human nature. We are human beings. We are not computer algorithms to be ‘perfected’, whatever that means.



 


How would you recommend people get into behavioural science?

If you are young, and you don't have enough life experience or work experience to build upon, the simplest route is to go for an education in any of the behavioural science fields. That’s definitely number one.  


Number two would be to maximize your luck area; meet and work with different kinds of people, take up an internship, take up a corporate project, then work with an NGO, or even develop an app and get somebody who knows behavioural science on the project as a mentor. Maximize the range of the knowledge that can come to you. That way, at the end of the 2-3 years, you’ve built up a powerful base for yourself. So, this is what you should do if you are young. And it doesn't matter whether you are studying behavioural economics or sociology or psychology or anthropology. Just cross pollinate, explore and learn as much as possible. Now this is all just my opinion, and others may have a different point of view, but I fully believe that whatever helps you understand human beings better, take it and start using it for solving problems. The way I see it, black magic rituals are something that should make you intensely curious. So should Hip Hop music and it’s rise to dominance the world over.


Now, if you are somebody who is 30+, already have work experience, and are already working some place, I'm assuming you are trying to solve some kind of problem. The best thing is to start learning, read a couple of books, get done with the basics, and start experimenting with your own team. For example, if you are a manager running a team of 10-20 people, instead of giving them an appraisal feedback once in a year, create a system where you're giving them feedback thrice a year. See if that changes things for your team.


There are so many experiments that you can start doing in the life that is around you.



What do you think is the skill set associated with being a really, really good behavioural scientist?

I've always given the same answer when someone asked me this:

  • Everybody in the world has got answers. The challenge is asking the right question.

  • Everything is contextual. It's not just that people are different from each other.


People are different from themselves depending on when you are approaching them. - Know what you have to do to get the answers. You have to go to the people. You have to be out there in the field.  That’s how you get the answers.



 


What do you think behavioural science is going to be like in, say, about 10 years? What are we developing towards? 

It will be best to answer this question at the end of 2025, when I have better data to extrapolate!



There is another question here, which is about the challenges that you expect the field to face. So you can get very negative and very pessimistic with that one - they tie in together, knowing these two questions, does that help?  

There is this phrase called ‘preaching to the choir.’ Where you're talking to the people who are already converts, who are already believers. A lot of us are preaching to the choir. We are talking with only each other. What we need is to be talking with diverse sets of people about this, as opposed to only speaking with each other.  Us talking among ourselves does not take the science forward beyond this point, right? It makes us feel warm and happy, but it doesn't take the science forward. You need a lot more people to know about it.


And second, we have to be okay that they will find their own interpretations of behavioural science. We’ve got to be open to how they want to use it, what is working for them, what is not. You cannot control it. You have to let people play with it because they are the ones who are supposed to use it. And they'll find a way to use it. It'll take some time. We have to be ok with this and trust that over a large enough period of time people who are experimenting with behavioural science will figure out how to use it the right way. Because they will.



Having these challenges identified, are we going back to the future?

Yes, from this lens, I can see two possible futures. Number one is behavioural science becomes confined to a behavioural science unit, or in the absence of a unit, gets outsourced to a consultancy. The second approach is it gets absorbed into the way things are done. The CEOs and the C-suites are aware of behavioural sciences. The middle management is aware of behavioural science. Everyone knows behavioural science.


The second dream is a long, long approach. It will not happen in 10 years. Maybe 50 years, 100 years even. But that possible future does exist. For now, it seems more likely that you'll be having units and you'll be having consultancies.



Beyond the future and its challenges, do you have any personal frustrations with the field?

They're not big frustrations. But I do wish that the field was growing a little faster. I do wish we would see a lot more people from, let's say, South America, from Africa, from the subcontinent, India. I want to understand what the Chinese point of view on behavioural science is.  I think this kind of growth would be lovely to see.



Who has really inspired you in your journey as a behavioural scientist?

I absolutely love Jez Groom, Biju Dominic and Dilip Soman, but you have interviewed all three of them already. Do see if you can reach out to Parameshwaran Venkatraman, he is a wonderful mind. And my co-founder Reshma Tonse, of course!

 


 


Thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions Prakash!


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!


Keep your eye on Money on the Mind!





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